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‘Empire’ Star’s Role: Singing for Pepsi

Fox is using all of its star-making machinery for Empire sponsor Pepsi, not only integrating the soft drink into the show, but weaving an entire commercial into a three-episode story arc.

Top-rated Empire is about the music business, and one of its characters is about to become a break-out star. In Wednesday night’s episode he got an opportunity to have one of his songs used in an ad campaign for Pepsi.

Blurring the line between content and commercial further, the creator of Empire, Lee Daniels, appears as himself in the show next week, directing the commercial.

The commercial appears as part of the storyline in what is actually a special, isolated, stand-alone pod during Empire’s Dec. 2 fall finale. The Jamal character, appearing at an award show, will announce the debut of his new ad. The ad will air and then viewers will return to the show seamlessly.

The Empire spot will become a real commercial in Pepsi’s campaign, airing during other Fox shows. (Other networks might run a version of the commercial as well after they judge whether it gives Fox and Empire too much promotion.)

The effort shows how hard networks are working to find ways to serve clients who demand more than 30-second spots for their advertising dollars in a multiplatform media world.

“It’s about innovation, it’s about breaking through. It’s about aligning great content with great brands and delivering high value and impact for our clients,” said Toby Byrne, president of ad sales for Fox Networks Group.

With the music business story line, Pepsi was a natural fit, Byrne said. “They’ve got that heritage of having superstars in their creative going back to Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Britney Spears.”

Byrne noted that the spot was a result of a careful collaboration. “It only works if it’s true to the show and we’ve worked very hard to make sure it is organic and not overly commercial,” he said. “We wanted to respect the art of Empire as well as respecting the viewer.”

Byrne declined to say how much Pepsi spent on its sponsorship. “I think it’s going to deliver value for them and for us,” he said.

James Murdoch, CEO of Fox parent 21st Century Fox, has been outspoken about the need for the TV advertising business to innovate. The network has been presenting Empire with limited commercials, which might have contributed to its popularity.

“We believe that commercial advertising business is going to continue to evolve and any way we can deliver more impact with potentially less interruption will be a win-win for consumers and advertisers,” he said.

On Wednesday’s episode of Empire, the character Jamal Lyon, played by Jussie Smollett, is about to burst into music stardom. Pepsi invites him to compete to be part of their campaign. He writes songs separately with rivals Cookie and Lucious, and then combines them to create the tune that he performs to win the gig.

Next Wednesday, Daniels directs Jamal as he rehearses for the commercial during the episode. Daniels is also the director of the real-life Pepsi commercial.

On Dec. 2, Jamal appears at a fictitious American Sound Awards event and unveils his Pepsi commercial, which will mark its public debut.