No Soft-Pedal In Versus Campaign

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Talk about taking the elephant head on.

Versus’ new ad campaign for the Tour De France stridently declares against the doping scandal that has tarnished what has been the network’s signature event in recent years, claiming Floyd Landis’ 2006 crown and the disqualification of two teams and many individual riders in 2007.

Centering on the tag line “Take Back The Tour,” the multifaceted campaign, encompassing TV, print, online, outdoor and guerrilla elements, sports copy starting with “Screw the dopers, politics and critics…They ripped the soul out of this race…It belongs to us…Take Back The Tour.”

Versus senior vice president of marketing and promotion Bill Bergofin said the campaign encapsulates the voices of many parties with affinity for the world’s most famous cycling race.

“The riders and fans are fed up. The test standards have increased. Anyone still doping figures to step aside from the Tour this year,” said Versus vice president of marketing Bill Bergofin. “Fans are very passionate about this sport and they don’t want to have what is a testament to human spirit and endurance marred any more.”

The Comcast Corp.-owned network has more than a passing interest in maintaining the event’s integrity. The network, which recorded its highest rating ever with Lance Armstrong’s final ride down the Champs Elysees back in 2005, just signed a five-year contract renewal with Amaury Sport Organization, the organizer of the cycling competition from 2009-2013. The pact is valued at some $27.5 million, a total that encompasses the exclusive U.S. TV rights to the event, English-rights in Canada, and production costs and commitments, according to sources familiar with the agreement.

From July 5 through July 27 competition, Versus for the eighth straight year will, on average, air 14 hours of race action per day.

Despite the scandals, Bergofin said cycling fans have remained committed to the Tour and other competitions on Versus. Coverage of the 2007 Tour reached 20.5 million households in total, more than any year in the network’s history with the event, including Armstrong’s final charge in 2005.

Moreover, this year’s Tour of California grew 29% in households and 30% in total viewer impressions, while the Giro d'Italia garnered pedaled to a 100% jump in ratings and a 40% increase in viewers, according to network officials.

The current ad campaign was created by New York shop The Concept Farm, whose principles routinely ride in Central Park.

“We look for authenticity from the agencies we work with,” said Bergofin. “They were well aware of the situation and basically executed the campaign we expected.”

The campaign’s essence had roots that date back to last summer, when Versus ran prints ads alluding to pledges riders were signing signifying they were dope-free. Copy included: “Commitment isn’t something you can just sign your name to…And you won’t find proof of it on the ink of some dotted line. But you will find it in the mountains of France.”

U.S. entry Team Slipstream, whose riders, according to Bergofin, have been forthright in their convictions to “ride cleanly,” will be front and center in Concept’s concepts, with some of the TV creative, coming from their perspective.

Bergofin said Versus wants the campaign to serve as “a battle cry” for Tour fans and is encouraging responses to Web site. He said that outstanding posts could become incorporated into the campaign.

In addition to messaging on Web site and first spot that began airing on Versus’ air June 10, the campaign will extend to print (USA Today, The New York Times ahead of the race); cross-channel avails tied to an LAS initiative that will cover 60% of the 73 million homes reached by Versus; the video-on-demand arena; wild postings; and grass roots elements in New York.

Sources familiar with the campaign estimate its media value as in the seven-figure range.

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