Until Sunday, late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Hulu had never run a TV ad. Although it’s a joint startup created by Fox and NBC Universal, the launch last March wasn’t accompanied by a big splashy campaign on one or both networks. Hulu, which features free TV shows and movies from more than 120 sources — Comedy Central to Ford Models to Paramount Pictures — relied on word-of-mouth marketing to become one of the top sites site for broadcast-quality video.
Enter Alec Baldwin. In a Super Bowl spot that AdAge columnist Bob Garfield called "just beautiful," Baldwin, looking an awful lot like Jack Donaghy, the hilarious network exec he plays on 30 Rock, steps through an unseen door in the "H" in the Hollywood sign and hops an elevator to Hulu’s secret underground headquarters. "They say TV will rot your brain," he says. "That’s absurd! TV only softens the brain, like a ripe banana. To take it all the way, we’ve created Hulu."
Baldwin, it turns out, is an alien with a hearty appetite for mushy brains. Hulu is his weapon of mass destruction disguised as an entertainment portal. The tagline: "Hulu — an evil plot to destroy the world. Enjoy."
It’s clever, irreverent stuff. As I discovered while interviewing Hulu executives recently, the real secret to Hulu’s success is something that’s often just as alien in Hollywood: collaboration and independence.
Fox and NBC recruited former Amazon veep Jason Kilar to be CEO and, incredibly, left his team alone. One of the guiding principles, says Kilar, was that people have favorite shows, not favorite networks, so the site downplays those affiliations. The show are the stars, with landing pages and highlight clips. Peter Chernin, president and COO of Fox’s parent company News Corp., and Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, deferred to Kilar and the Webheads. "This was about the Internet, and that’s not where they spent the bulk of their careers," Kilar said.
During this moment of extraordinary economic upheaval, Hulu is a fine example of what’s possible when rivals work together and embrace disruptive technology.
The ad campaign, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, will continue on Fox and NBC, which should bump the site’s numbers – more than 22 million visitors a month – as more people discover the pleasure of watching shows such as Friday Night Lights and Arrested Development on a full-screen player, whenever they choose.
So grab a stack of napkins, Alien Alec. There are plenty more ripe bananas to come.