‘Saturday Night Live’ Cast in High Demand for Commercials After Years of Making Fake Ads

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Some of the most-watched sketches featuring cast members of “Saturday Night Live” aren’t taking place on NBC’s venerable late-night show.

Several of “SNL’s” popular players have in recent months started showing their stuff on a decidedly different stage. Kenan Thompson, who has been with “SNL” since 2003, recently began holding amusing conversations with talking kitchen appliances as he shops for a car in a commercial from Autotrader. Aidy Bryant has been spotted dancing in ads for Old Navy. Kate McKinnon hasn’t been on “SNL” so far this season due to outside projects, but she has been trying to make people smile in spots for Verizon and PepsiCo’s Tostitos. Pete Davidson gets his tattoos removed in recent ads for Coca-Cola’s smartwater. And Chloe Fineman, a relative newcomer to the “SNL” ranks, has struck an alliance with J. Crew’s Madewell.

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“SNL” cast have appeared in commercials in the recent past. McKinnon has done ads for Ford and Cecily Strong has held forth for Mondelez International’s Triscuits. Leslie Jones once did an ad for Allstate and Michael Che appeared with Tina Fey in a commercial for American Express. Last year, however, “Saturday Night Live” was the most-watched traditional TV series among viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most coveted by advertisers in entertainment programming. The cast of “SNL,” once billed as “The Not Ready For Prime Time Players,” is more than adequately prepared as far as Madison Avenue is concerned.

In the past, “it was very, very challenging to work with that franchise. It made people a little gun-shy,” says Megan McMahon, senior vice president of celebrity and influencer at The Marketing Arm, an Omnicom Group marketing agency that tracks famous figures’ ability to influence brand loyalty and consumer purchases. “’SNL’ and NBC have been much more open to opportunities.”

So open that NBC has told advertisers they can’t run commercials featuring the cast during original broadcasts of the show itself, out of concern that viewers might think the ads and the program are intertwined. The network goofed during its October 23 telecast, when Jason Sudeikis hosted “SNL,” running the Old Navy commercial with Bryant at two different times. Those appearances should not have happened, according to a person familiar with the matter, and NBC was slated to review why its policies were not followed. “SNL” producers declined to comment.

The “SNL” cast has even been ranked on such criteria as awareness, overall appeal, ability to break through to consumers, and whether potential customers might find one member or another aspirational. According to The Marketing Arm’s study of such attributes, McKinnon’s appeal is on par with that of Tom Hanks, Will Smith or Dolly Parton, while awareness of Thompson’s is comparable to that of Chrissy Teigen, Robert Pattinson and Eva Longoria.

Madison Avenue’s growing use of “SNL” actors comes as Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer, has started working with the cast in new ways. In earlier decades, most of the cast stayed close to the series, and didn’t branch out until a contract had lapsed and other opportunities presented themselves. But Michaels and his Broadway Video production company have ramped up other activity, much of it centered around “SNL” talent. Last season, for example, both Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant did not appear for several episodes while each tackled other projects under Michaels’ aegis. Thompson, meanwhile, stars in his own NBC sitcom that is in production during part of the “SNL” cycle.

“I think Lorne has always been an advocate for everybody that’s kind of subsidizing their finances in any kind of way they can,” says Thompson, in an interview. “As long as it’s not something like ‘Why didn’t you put that character on the show? Why are you developing sketch characters for other people?’ That’s kind of the only time it gets a little muddy, I guess.”

Michaels told Variety in 2017 that he takes such matters seriously. “I don’t like it, but if someone is going to be well paid and it’s not next to us in the show, then I’m OK,” he said of the cast appearing in commercial., When it comes to weaving bespoke ad messages into or alongside “SNL,” he is “less welcoming in the sense that the integrity of the show is really all that matters to me,” he said at the time, adding that “You can’t make fun of it, and be with it” simultaneously.

Advertisers still want any “SNL” foothold they can get. Autotrader thought Thompson would help capture the attention of millennial consumers, says Greta Crowley, vice president of marketing for Cox Automotive, which owns Autotrader, and knew that any link to “SNL” would be relevant for months as the show garnered notice for its sketches and cultural commentary. “We knew it was going to continue to get more press,” she says.

So the company did its due diligence, making sure to talk to NBC in advance of the campaign, checking to see what it might be able to do in terms of getting ads in proximity to the series. Airing the commercial during first run “SNL” episodes was not an option, says Crowley. “They are a little more careful about trying to preserve the ‘SNL’ characters and celebrities,” and want to keep away from anything that might suggest the show, which regularly lampoons popular products and companies in sketches and spoofs of advertising, is treating something with any degree of favoritism. But NBC will allow the ads to run in “SNL” repeats and in “SNL” clips that appear on social media, she says, as well as in the “Kenan” sitcom.

Other marketers also think the “SNL” cast will help secure attention from consumers who have become much harder to reach. Pete Davidson’s ad for smartwater, which debuted in July, generated so much response that Coca-Cola decided to put it back in rotation for a second run in October, says Amy Manganiello, group director of creative for the company’s portfolio of hydration products. Executives wanted the commercial to portray smartwater as something that helps people make better choices in their lives, and felt Davidson, who has been open in the past about working thorough issues around mental health, would make for a great fit, she adds.

Research by Madewell shows that Chloe Fineman has “generated strong positive sentiment” for its clothes, says Derek Yarbrough, the company’s chief marketing officer. And Old Navy, part of Gap Inc., felt teaming up with Aidy Bryant would burnish a connection with a broader array of potential customers, says Jamie Gersch, the company’s global chief marketing officer. Bryant “has been a champion for body inclusivity on and off the screen and felt personally connected to this concept.” Marketing executives for Verizon and Tostitos declined to comment on their specific alliances with Kate McKinnon.

At a different time, seeing an “SNL” cast member involved in commercial activity might raise eyebrows. When David Spade did an ad for 1-800-COLLECT in the mid-1990s while still on “SNL,” for example, it was surprising, and decidedly not the norm. Since then, however, Michaels has carefully steered the show into interesting team-ups with Madison Avenue. In 2009, “SNL” crafted three sketches based on a long-running spoof of “MacGyver” called “MacGruber” that were really commercials for Pepsi. The spots appeared in ad breaks supporting a January “SNL” broadcast, and one of them showed up in NBC’s broadcast a day later of Super Bowl XLIII. On occasion, the show is allowing some of its former cast members to reprise old characters. Kevin Nealon and Dana Carvey revived their “Hans and Franz” team for State Farm while Carvey and Mike Meyers held forth as “Wayne’s World” denizens Wayne and Garth for a spot from Uber Eats.

One reason the “SNL” actors are in demand is their ability to improvise and come up with more material than is called for in any individual commercial script. Pete Davidson’s smartwater commercial has gotten a “refresh” for its new run, says Manganiello, with extra footage that was available. “There is so much great content on the cutting room floor,” she says, which has enabled to company to make use of some outtakes and bloopers. Davidson will be seen in the commercial through the end of 2021, she adds. Autotrader has a few unexpected extras from Thompson it could use. “There was a trip and fall in there,” he says.

More advertisers are willing to loosen up to work with comedians, says The Marketing Arm’s McMahon, and that lets the “SNL” players work toward their strengths. Improvised remarks and in-the-moment jokes “can prolong a campaign,” she says, and create all kinds of ancillary material. “It’s not just about the TV spot. It’s also about the social content.”

The lure of commercial work can be hard to resist for an actor, no matter where they are in the arc of a career. Money and exposure, after all, are always appreciated. Imagine, says Thompson, if his work on the Autotrader ad turned him into the next “Flo,” the insurance-selling character who has been rendered almost ubiquitous by commercials from Progressive. “It’s a side thing that doesn’t take up a lot of time, but can echo for a long time, which is an actor’s dream.”

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