New HBO Max Ads Look Like Scenes From ‘Sex Lives’

People who decide to stream HBO Max’s “Sex Lives of College Girls” on its ad-supported tier may be hard-pressed to determine when the show ends and when the commercials begin.

Google has signed on to be the exclusive sponsor of the second season of the program, which, as its title implies, examines young women at college navigating sexually active lifestyles. Rather than seeing typical TV commercials, subscribers will see just two 15 second spots featuring Amrit Kaus and Pauline Chalamet, two actors from the series. The hope is that viewers won’t feel like the show is being interrupted because they’ll get to see more content with its stars.

“Streaming platforms offer new opportunities for us to be far more relevant than we were in the traditional linear environment, and that’s where we are going to go,” says Garrick Schmitt, executive vice president of global experience design at Essence, a media-buying firm that works with Google and is part of WPP’s GroupM.

The commercials, which launched November 17, just before the traditional fourth-quarter holiday-shopping season, mark the first time HBO Max has allowed characters from its shows to be utilized in such a fashion — and executives are not likely to make it a common event. The company does not utilize characters from its HBO series in such a way, only ones from the Max series on the hub, notes Ryan Gould, senior vice president of sales and client partnerships at Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent of HBO Max.

TV networks have over the years occasionally allowed characters from their shows to turn up in ad breaks. In 2016, for example, “Modern Family” dad Phil Dunphy, played by actor Ty Burrell, led a campaign for the National Association of Realtors. Viewers may recall that the character was a real-estate agent. Others have asked actors to play roles that are very similar to the ones that made them famous. In 1997, actor Dennis Franz played a surly cop – much like the one he depicted on ABC’s “NYPD Blue.” The disposition of the commercial character was so similar to the one in the police drama that NBC and CBS refused to run the spot.

On TV, however, such gimmicks are packaged along with dozens of other commercials and promotions, making the task of standing out from the pack a tough one. On streamers, which — at least for now – have vowed to rely on lower ad loads, marketers may have a better chance to make their pitch.

The “Sex Lives” ads are meant to highlight “Shop With Google,” a search service that lets consumers examine prices and shopping locations. In one spot, Chalamet talks about one of the fashion quirks of Kimberley, her character on the show. In the other, Kaur discusses a shopping hack. “It’s really a value-added experience,” says Gould.  “The creative really speaks to this audience that has an intimate relation with the characters.”

The custom spots also suggest how commercials on streaming services are likely to evolve. Most of the major media companies have begun to offer ad-supported versions of even the most premium streamers. Both Disney and Netflix have launched tiers of their namesake streaming outlets that feature commercials, in exchange for a lower fee.

Expect more in months to come, especially as advertisers try to harness the interactive nature of the streaming hubs. “We are going to continue to push in this space,” says Essence’s Schmitt. “When you are in an addressable format, there’s so much that can happen.”

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