Drive My Car

When Oprah Winfrey gave away 276 Pontiac sedans on her show in September, she scored a TV marketing coup. Live With Regis and Kelly used a similar stunt for February sweeps, but its $1.7 million giveaway of 28 Pontiac Montana SV6 vans didn’t get the publicity bounce Winfrey’s did. Still, the contest got the largest response from Live viewers of any promotion in the show’s 17-year history, pulling in more than 2.3 million entries.

Live executive producer Michael Gelman sees contests as loyalty programs. Designed to keep viewers tuned in, they can reward those who do. Since the show first went on the air, it has held regular trivia contests for the home audience. The rules get more complicated, and the prizes get bigger during sweeps.

“I’m much more into giving away my prizes to people who are the viewers at home than I am to giving things gratuitously to the studio audience,” he says.

To grab the most attention with his Pontiac contest, Gelman began dropping hints in late December. Hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa told viewers “something really big” would happen on the show after the holidays. On Jan. 11, the two walked outside their New York studio to a block on West 67th Street where 28 Pontiac Montana SV6s stood. The stunt stopped traffic for about 15 minutes.

During the week of Jan. 17, the hosts gave viewers special car phrases each day. To qualify to win, entrants had to send in all five answers. Throughout the month of February, they handed out a van to one viewer a day.

Each package was valued at almost $60,000: $37,000 for the van plus cash to cover the costs of registration and taxes.

Pontiac and Buena Vista won’t disclose the financial terms of their arrangement. But Pontiac Advertising Manager Mary Kubitskey says the budget was roughly equivalent to what she would have spent on advertising on the show in a full year.

Kubitskey, who orchestrated the giveaways on both Live and The Oprah Winfrey Show, is now working on a strategy for developing the next promotion. She wants the Pontiac car campaign to be wed to the show, not relegated to its ad time. “In these days of TiVo, with people skipping commercials, I’ve got to find a way to break through and resonate with consumers,” she says. “We need to find the next big thing.”