A Network for Women Tries Bawdy
By Julie Bosman Published: January 4, 2006
When the cable network Oxygen made its debut in February 2000, two and a half hours of programming each day was devoted to "Pure Oxygen," a magazine-style talk show about "all things female."
Since then, it has gradually replaced its wholesome tone with fare like "Talk Sex With Sue Johanson," a call-in sex advice show that is on Fridays at 2 a.m. Now, Oxygen is making another move to overhaul its lingering earnest image. On Sunday, the network will introduce "Campus Ladies," a ribald comedy about two middle-age suburban women who go back to college and indulge in some age-inappropriate partying and carousing with male undergraduates.
Helping Oxygen in its image makeover will be Toy, a newly minted boutique agency in New York, which has created an $8 million marketing campaign to introduce the weekly show. The campaign, Toy's first account in its two-month life, combines print, television, subway posters, billboards, online and guerrilla advertising. The ads will take a tack that is still unusual in advertising for women - the use of the kind of bawdy humor traditionally aimed at men.
Oxygen executives described "Campus Ladies" as a turning point for a network that in recent years has tried to widen its appeal and stand out from other brands that appeal to women. The show is aimed at women 18 to 49 years old, Oxygen's core audience.
Ever since Geraldine Laybourne, the chairman and chief executive of Oxygen Media, announced in 1998 that she and Oprah Winfrey, among other investors, would be starting a television network for women, Oxygen has struggled to compete with Lifetime. (Currently, Oxygen is seen in 56 million homes; Lifetime in 88 million.) But Oxygen says its audience is expanding along with its content. Among its target audience, daytime ratings increased 19 percent and prime-time ratings rose 16 percent from 2004 to 2005, said Sarah Chaikin, a spokeswoman for Oxygen.
"We've really changed in that the content of the channel has become much more entertainment-oriented," said Debby Beece, the president of programming and marketing for Oxygen.
From a "Mrs. Robinson" spoof in a print ad to an online banner ad depicting a woman who says she wants "a frat boy with rock hard abs," the campaign Toy has created does appear to be inspired by traditional male humor. One ad features a college-age man standing in the entry of a bedroom decorated with university pennants, with a woman's shapely leg stretched out in the foreground. A radio commercial, with a voice-over from "Paige, the founder of Students Against Overage Drinking," warns male college students that "extremely drunk middle-aged college women are trying to have sex with you."
One billboard gives the show's name and viewing times, but with an oversize white brassiere slung over the edge. The campaign also contains guerrilla elements: Toy has produced toilet paper imprinted with the show's logo that is to be placed in the bathrooms of bars near college campuses.
The Oxygen account is not only an attempt to revamp the network's image, but the first major test for a start-up agency with only six employees. Toy was founded in September by Anne Bologna and Ari Merkin, two former senior officers of the New York office of Fallon Worldwide. Ms. Bologna, 48, was president of Fallon New York and has become a partner and president of Toy, while Mr. Merkin, 35, the former executive creative director of Fallon New York, has become partner and executive creative director. Their departure caused a stir at the agency: after they announced plans to leave, Fallon, a Minneapolis-based unit of the Publicis Groupe, closed the New York office.
Oxygen executives said the choice of Toy stemmed from the work that Ms. Bologna and Mr. Merkin had previously done at Fallon, particularly their advertising campaign for Brawny paper towels. That campaign was centered on "fantasy men" who shared the strong and sensitive qualities of the official Brawny Man. (The Brawny Man also received a makeover last year, losing his mustache and outdated hairstyle.) "Anne and Ari had a history of coming up with big ideas that got people talking about brands," said Cynthia Ashworth, the senior vice president for marketing at Oxygen. "And they had amazing insight into women."
Ms. Bologna said the Brawny and Oxygen campaigns shared the same premise: that women can gravitate to traditionally male humor, if given the chance.
"Women want to be respected, and they have a sense of humor," Ms. Bologna said. "Why should men get all the funny commercials? Why should only men get to have a higher level of entertainment in their advertising? Women are people, too, and they deserve to be entertained."