EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Holy Grail of inducing viewers to shop while they watch is as old as the TV business itself.
The result is usually an “epic failure,” according to technology consultant Shelly Palmer, chief executive officer of The Palmer Group.
While a record 182 million Americans are expected to shop in-store and online from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday, according to the National Retail Federation, 130 million are expected to shop on Black Friday alone.
Enter Amazon, who paid the NFL $100 million for exclusive rights to the league’s first ever Black Friday game, according to Peter King of NBC Sports.
The New York Jets will host the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium, and off the field, Jeff Bezos’ e-commerce giant is ramping up an innovation that could give viewers a preview of future NFL coverage: the widespread use of “Interactive Video Ads.”
Danielle Carney, Amazon’s head of NFL Ad sales, says the giant streamer will run twice as many interactive ads as its typical “Thursday Night Football” game.
A Two-Day Thanksgiving
The NFL already owns Thanksgiving, annually airing a triple-header. But Amazon and the league are pulling out all the stops to attract, and reward, Black Friday viewers.
Fans who don’t have Prime accounts will be able to stream the game for free, exclusive deals will be offered via QR codes, and Prime will include a postgame Garth Brooks concert.
Given the NFL’s recent Turkey Day history, Prime could score a massive potential audience the day after, when many viewers are still off from work and recovering from eating and drinking.
The league’s most-watched regular-season game ever came in the form of last year’s Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants telecast on Fox, drawing a monster 42 million viewers.
And, in the second year of its 11-year, $1 billion-per-year “TNF” deal, Prime is garnering broadcast-level audiences this season.
Last week’s stream of the Baltimore Ravens vs. Cincinnati Bengals drew 12.91 million viewers, up 25% from last year’s comparable game. So far this season, Prime is averaging 12.27 million viewers for TNF. That’s up 26% from last season’s 10-game average on TNF.
Advertisers have eagerly latched on to the debut Black Friday game, despite ad prices as high as $500,000 for commercial slots.
All ad inventory for Black Friday has completely sold out, according to Amazon. Similar to the Super Bowl, some marketers like DraftKings, State Farm, and Hasbro even prepared all-new commercials for the game.
Based on viewer projections and historical NFL ad engagement, the research firm EDO projects Prime’s Interactive Video Ads will generate over $1.3 million in media value for participating brands.
“Given that even the most expensive regular-season sports ads cost significantly less than $1 million, it’s likely that advertisers will reap a powerful return on investment from the Black Friday contest between the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins,” predicted EDO.
Motivating a Captive Audience
Television has historically been a “lean-back” medium: Viewers like to passively watch sports, sitcoms, and dramas rather than actively shop as they do on “lean-forward” mediums like computers.
In the 1990s, the ambitious idea of selling “Jennifer Aniston’s sweater” was all the rage on Madison Avenue. The promise was that “Friends” fans would lunge across the coffee table to purchase Rachel’s outfits.
Instead, they just wanted to relax on their couch and enjoy the show.
As media analyst Josh Bernoff told the Washington Post, interactive TV is a “bad idea” that continues to come around every few years.
“People are just generally not in the mood for shopping while they’re watching TV,” he said.
But three decades ago, the “two-screen experience” simply wasn’t yet a reality. Now, three-fourths of U.S homes boast a connected TV device.
It also doesn’t pay to bet against Amazon — which survived the dot-com bubble and now has 200 million-plus Prime customers and $514 billion in 2022 sales — or the NFL, which continues to defy the overall drop in TV audience ratings.
The number of U.S. households paying for live TV has plunged to 73 million homes from a high of 100 million only a decade ago. Over the last 15 years, the time spent watching live TV has dropped from almost nine hours a day to about five, according to Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg.
Yet NFL viewership is up 7% this season and on track for its best TV performance since 2015.
“The explanation for this seems simple. Programming that must be consumed live, like sports and breaking news, is immune to cord-cutting, smartphones, and the collapse of what was once TV,” writes Shaw. “Even if the number of people paying for live TV is in decline, sports fans are canceling at lower rates because cable is the only place where they can watch most of their games.”
Streaming viewers are also younger and more tech-savvy than broadcast TV viewers. Prime’s digital-first audience for “TNF” averages a full seven years younger than the NFL’s linear TV partners, according to Hans Schroeder, the NFL executive vice president of media distribution.
“And they’re watching even longer per viewing time than our viewers on television,” said Schroeder on a press call previewing Friday’s game.
No, football viewers are not predisposed to shop during games, said Ernest Lupinacci, a brand consultant and creative director on Nike and ESPN ad campaigns. But he thinks the Black Friday game could turn out to be a master marketing stroke.
Here’s Prime targeting a captive audience in a “tryptophan turkey haze,” who can barely move after gorging on food and multiple NFL games the day before, noted Lupinacci.
Inviting them to shop from their couch — while watching another game — gives them a perfect excuse to avoid the crazed brick-and-mortar shopping scene. Viewers will point their remotes and click, before an email takes them straight to an advertiser’s Amazon landing page. Fans watching via Amazon’s Fire TV Stick can “Add to Cart” without leaving the stream.
“The message is: You’re getting the best Amazon has to offer in terms of high quality, low cost. You’re getting the kinds of deals you’d only get if you spent the day fighting it out Hunger Games-style at the mall,” said Lupinacci. “But you’re also lying on the couch — under a Snuggie.
“This is the Holy Trinity. This is why our forefathers founded this country.”
After The Dust Settles
Starting Saturday, Prime will analyze what worked and what didn’t. Either way, Prime will keep the focus on the game itself, not the commercials, according to Jay Marine, Amazon global head of sports.
“I expect it will continue to grow year after year in the same way we’ve grown ‘Thursday Night Football’ in Year 2,” said Marine.
So will Amazon and the NFL finally untangle the Gordian Knot of interactive TV?
The answer is a “resounding maybe,” said Palmer, who owns several patents in the category.
Knowing Amazon, he jokes the tech giant will be delivering orders before the game’s even over. The only way we’ll know if it worked is if there’s a second interactive Black Friday game in 2024.
“Is it time? Yes, it could be,” Palmer said. “We’re going to find out. It’s a great experiment.”