Oscar Sponsors Set Example for Small Firms

The Oscars aren't generating much heat this year. Is anyone truly excited about a showdown between Frost/Nixon and The Reader?

The Academy Awards broadcast remains a major player in at least one arena: advertising. Despite cuts in corporate-marketing budgets, American Express ( AXP), Coca-Cola ( KO), L'Oreal ( LRLCY) and McDonald's ( MCD), still consider Sunday's awards ceremony a golden opportunity.

While such a high-profile broadcast is out of reach for small companies, it's a reminder that advertising counts, even in a tough market. Slashing your marketing budget might seem easier than laying off employees, but it's not necessarily the right move.

"I see these times as a wonderful opportunity," said Bill Bartmann, whose company Billionaire Business Systems offers advice to entrepreneurs. "Your competition will be pulling out of the market, and at the same time, media companies are offering special deals and discounts. You get a twofer."

Oscar commercials have been fair game for haggling. This year, 30-second spots are going for $1.4 million, down from $1.7 million last year, according to Advertising Age. Last year's show drew 32 million viewers, its lowest ever. This year isn't expected to be much better; the five best-picture nominees haven't been burning up the box office.

Even though companies are buying discounted ads, they're still making significant outlays to be a part of the broadcast. Why? To target the large number of affluent women watching the Oscars. Advertising insiders consider it "the Super Bowl for women." Academy Award viewers may actually be more valuable than the vaunted Super Bowl audience. Consider the numbers: It cost $3 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl, which was watched by 95 million people this year. The Oscars are charging half as much, but attracting only one-third as many viewers. That means advertisers are willing to pay a premium to reach them.

That doesn't mean small businesses should risk bankruptcy to buy high-profile ads. But it shows the importance of finding the right venue for your message.

"You have to know your customer," Bartmann said. "What do they read? What do they watch? Where do they drive? Once you can answer those questions, then you'll know where you should be advertising."

Business owners should take advantage of their clout, Bartmann said. They're likely to get a better deal on ads than they could last year, and their messages will stand out as competitors slash their marketing budgets.

"If you're the only advertiser in your industry, you win," he said.

For cash-strapped companies, marketing doesn't need to involve advertising. While most small businesses don't consider public relations when they're trying to raise their profiles, Bartmann considers such strategies cheaper, longer-lasting and more effective.

Business owners don't need to hire a high-priced firm to create a public-relations plan. Your strategy can be as simple as getting involved in community events, offering your expertise to local newspaper reporters or giving a seminar at your local library. With a little ingenuity, you can boost your company's name recognition with little or no spending.

Remember the lesson of Slumdog Millionaire, an independently financed film that's considered the frontrunner in the best-picture category. If it snags the Oscar on Sunday, consider it a sign: You don't need to shell out big bucks to be a winner.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.

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