G.E. goes native on Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight’

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Jimmy Fallon. (AP Photo/NBC, Lloyd Bishop)
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Alex Weprin

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NBC says that aircraft engine builder, kitchen appliance-maker and former NBC owner General Electric will be a launch sponsor of the “Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon” as it debuts tonight.

As part of the deal, G.E. will sponsor a recurring segment on the show called “Tonight Show Fallonventions,” in which Fallon presents fun inventions created by kids. The first edition of that segment will air on Feb. 19, with others to follow throughout the year. G.E. will also serve as the launch sponsor of a new “Tonight Show” app.

The integrated advertisements mark a strong return to an ad format born at the dawn of television, when variety programs had names like “The Chesterfield Supper Club,” hosted by Perry Como and sponsored by the cigarette company. Early TV ads resembled radio ads, with the host moving from whatever he was talking about to discussing a sponsor. Even later on, after the days of cigarette-sponsored variety shows ended, Johnny Carson did some live ads during his tenure at “Tonight.”

As television grew more popular, commercial breaks with 15–, 30–, and 60-second ads became the norm, sometimes at the expense of integrated ads. Integrated and live advertisements never entirely went away, particularly on variety and talk shows, but they became far less prominent.

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In recent years however, the live ad has been making a significant comeback on late-night TV, to the point where major brands are actively pushing for inclusion on the late-night shows. The cause of this resurgence of live ads can be traced back to the digital video recorder, or D.V.R., which became widely adopted in the early 2000s and panicked advertisers sure that customers would simply fast forward through the ads.

ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel aggressively features sponsored segments on his program, including segments featuring tablets and snack food like Tostitos. Fallon’s predecessor Jay Leno upped the number of live and integrated ads he did on the program after the arrival of Kimmel, with AT&T and Garmin signing on board. Conan O’Brien has video game companies pay to appear in the “Clueless Gamer” segment on his TBS talk show. Fallon himself tested out a live ad for Lexus on his “Late Night” last September, drawing a lot of attention.

The biggest difference between the current spate of ads and the ones from the earlier days of television are the quality of their content. While the early ads were obvious, the current slate of integrated ads can be harder to spot. At the same time, they are arguably more entertaining than having a host simply read marketing-speak. O’Brien, for example, often mocks the videogames he plays on his show, albeit gently. Indeed, with Fallon’s G.E. deal, the goal was to fit the advertisement in organically.

“We always try to mirror Jimmy’s creativity when it comes to finding ways for our advertising partners to reach their target audiences,” said Dan Lovinger, executive V.P. of the entertainment advertising sales group at NBCUniversal, in a statement. “Bringing G.E. into the show in a way that stays true to what Jimmy is developing with the new ‘Tonight Show’ is an important part of our innovative thinking here at NBCUniversal.”

The New York Post’s Claire Atkinson wondered last week whether “Tonight” and Fallon would be game for live ads, citing the demand from advertisers. The G.E. deal shows that indeed they are.

For viewers, live and integrated ads are occasionally mocked and sometimes ignored. In other cases, however, particularly O’Brien’s “Clueless Gamer” and other efforts by Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, they are accepted. As a viewer, the most important element of late night TV is its entertainment value. Who sponsors it is often an afterthought. For advertisers, it is a chance to be seen as “cool,” and to be associated with fun, or in the case of G.E., “innovative,” segments and bits.