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Advertisers Tune In Tie-Ins For Black History Month

2/10/2006 7:08 PM Eastern

Black History Month has come under criticism from the likes of Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman among others for relegating recognition of African-Americans to just one month. But for advertisers, February is the perfect time to reach consumers by sponsoring cable programming in honor of the celebration.

Several networks including The History Channel and ESPN are offering original documentaries, movies and specials all month long, which advertisers such as Red Lobster and Heineken see as an opportunity to connect with African-American viewers. This despite the fact that cable services such as TV One and Black Entertainment Television offer similarly targeted programming throughout the year.

“What we have found is that many marketers love to take advantage of Black History Month to reach African-Americans. They adjust their budgets so there’s more money to spend in February,” TV One president Johnathan Rodgers said. “As a network targeting African-Americans, we seek to take advantage of that. While Black History Month is every month for us, what we do is raise the profile of those shows in February.”

Seafood restaurant chain Red Lobster is sponsoring two History Channel specials, First To Fight: The Black Tankers of WWII and Honor Deferred, as well as a series of Court TV vignettes on Black History Month and special short profiles of civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.

With 15% of its advertising budget earmarked for diversity, Red Lobster marketing media manager Karen Soots said History and Court TV programming are key outlets for reaching African-American consumers, especially during Black History Month. She said similar targeted sponsorships with History has helped the chain increase overall restaurant traffic. She would not reveal specific figures on African-American patrons.

“Diversity is the cornerstone of our business, so anytime we can support a network that’s doing that as well, we will look to work with them,” she said. “We have a long history with The History Channel and we support their efforts in this area. What we get is a halo effect that translates to more guests for us.”

History Channel eastern region vice president of advertising sales Brian Granath said the network provides diversity-focused programming throughout the year, but advertisers continually approach the network about sponsoring its Black History Month fare.

A similar scenario is playing out at ESPN. The sports giant’s series of short profiles of African-American athletes throughout the month turned out to be a perfect vehicle for beer maker Heineken to attach its brand to in an effort to appeal to African-Americans. Heineken is sponsoring a series of vignettes dubbed This Is How We Lift Our World, profiling past and present athletes like George Foreman, David Robinson and Tiger Woods.

“They obviously recognize that the programming we’re going to produce in recognizing the great performances and achievements of African-American athletes is a great platform to reach that audience,” ESPN ABC Sports customer marketing and sales president Ed Erhardt said.

Even networks that target the African-American community all year round, such as Black Entertainment Television, set aside a few shows during the month in an effort to meet the requests of advertisers.

Earlier this month the network teamed with Nissan Motor Co.’s Infiniti brand to create a half-hour special featuring five African-American artists: painter Kehinde Wiley, musician Paul D. Miller, filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, industrial designer Stephen Burks and choreographer Dierdre Dawkins. The commercial-free presentation, titled Infiniti In Black, was sponsored in full by the automaker.

But executives from such networks argue that advertisers’ efforts to reach African-Americans should not be limited to just one month.

“We feel a need from the cable affiliates and from the advertisers to have a couple of specials in February because that’s unfortunately where they still focus,” BET chairman Debra Lee said.

“So our job from an advertising and affiliate standpoint is to convince folks that black programming is important all year, and Black History Month is not the only month that they should focus on,” she added.

Cynthia Perkins-Roberts, vice president, diversity sales and business development at the Cable Television Advertising Bureau says that advertisers have begun to expand their African-American consumer-targeted advertising dollars beyond February, but a significant amount of money is still allocated to that 28-day period.

The networks themselves have helped that move by airing African-American-targeted programming outside of February, she said.

“I do believe that the advertisers are in two schools of thought, but I believe that overall they’re beginning to diversify their mix,” Perkins-Roberts said. “Our industry is one that’s evolving and they recognize the fact that African-American consumers watch a great deal of television, so they want those viewers watching their networks. It may be more visible during February, but it expands beyond February.”

Red Lobster’s Soots agrees. She said her company is always looking for opportunities to work with History and other networks beyond February. Red Lobster has a consistent advertising schedule with TV One and BET that goes well beyond Black History Month.

Still, executives say the situation is far from ideal.

“For an African-American like myself,” said TV One’s Rodgers, “it is personally insulting that only one month out of the year does it seem our history matters when in fact our contributions will last forever.”

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