Stuart Elliott: What Are Tarnished Oscars Worth to Advertisers?

By Stuart Elliott Report Archives

One reason viewers tune in to the Academy Awards each year is to watch the nervous nominees live, wondering in real time whether or not they will win Oscars. This year, although few categories other than Best Picture still seem up for grabs, there will be plenty of folks squirming and sweating: the advertisers buying commercial time during the coverage of the ceremony on ABC.

Much more likely to be generating the agita among the advertisers is the recent controversy over diversity and the Oscars, which has the potential to diminish the value of the Academy Awards for everyone concerned: sponsors, nominees, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the film industry.

It's funny that the Oscars long have served as a major marketing device to help sell movie going to the public, because the controversy over the racial composition of the nominee rosters threatens to tarnish the awards in a way almost nothing else has in the decades the Academy has been bestowing them. Well, except maybe for "Dances with Wolves" being named Best Picture over "Goodfellas." And Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck never winning a competitive Oscar. And Myrna Loy, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson never even being nominated.

And ... well, you get the picture. (Pardon the pun.) Even with hindsight being 20-20 you can make a case that the Academy is particularly obtuse when it comes to honoring the best of cinema, continually overlooking gems and rewarding mediocrity. Still, the response to the #OscarSoWhite flap was especially ham-handed.

For one thing, the Academy's scrambling to change its membership in the wake of these nominations says to a lot of people that there's something wrong with the actors and actresses who actually were nominated. So why bother to watch the broadcast Sunday if those nominees already have been found wanting? (There also are likely to be people who won't watch because they're unhappy there are no minority nominees, and activists are calling for boycotts of the broadcast and organizing protests in Hollywood and at ABC stations in big markets.)

The Academy's reaction also suggests that its leaders no longer believe the sole standard for an Oscar nomination ought to be the quality of a performance. If other criteria are to be added to the mix, how will that affect the public's perception of how prestigious -- and objective -- the award is?

The Academy's rule changes, meant to increase the diversity of its membership, may also mean that among the older members losing their Oscar voting rights are those who voted to give Sidney Poitier the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1964. Or those who voted to give Denzel Washington and Halle Berry their Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress in 2002. Or even those who voted to give three rappers the Oscar for Best Original Song, for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from "Hustle and Flow," in 2006. 

All the signals that there's something subpar about the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards have put the advertisers on the hot seat. "Oscars Ceremony in Crisis," read a front-page headline in Monday's New York Times, referring to an article that recounts how the show's ratings were "already under siege" even before the controversy.

If there's an honor for the most-stressed-out marketer, it probably would be presented to Kohl's, which decided to replace J.C. Penney as the broadcast's retail sponsor after 14 years. Talk about timing!

Kohl's is using the hashtag #AllTheGoodStuff in social media to promote its five commercials to appear during the show, which Advertising Age describes as offering "a humorous take on the notion of an acceptance speech for everyday life." The hashtag might be the only "good stuff" connected with this Oscarcast.

Joining the advertisers among the ranks of the brow-wipers and hand-wringers is ABC, which has a long-term contract with the Academy to broadcast the awards. That the ceremony now may be damaged goods is a distressing distraction to a network that already was worrying over the ratings for Sunday's broadcast.

For the Super Bowl, viewership is rarely affected by which teams are playing in the game. But for the Oscars, viewership typically rises and falls with the popularity of the movies nominated for Best Picture. ABC brass must be fretting because the eight films vying for the top award this time are hardly blockbusters; the biggest American grosser to date, at $165.1 million, is "The Revenant." ("Star Wars: The Force Awakens," at a whopping $921.6 million, was nominated for other awards but not Best Picture.)

ABC is trying to make lemonade out of the proverbial lemons. One promotional commercial running on the network urges audiences to tune in for "the most unpredictable Oscars ever -- and Chris Rock." Now that's a pitch: "Hey, spend three and a half or four hours watching our master of ceremonies attack the very show he's hosting!"

Will it be better or worse if Rock's barbs are viciously on target or if they land with a thud? It's a predicament Bob Hope or Billy Crystal never had to confront.

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