Conan’s ‘Show Zero’: The Brand (Dis)integration of Coco-Cola

Well, that was quick.

Conan O’Brien’s “Show Zero,” an internet-only sneak preview of the talk show coming to TBS next week, lasted all of five minutes.

Actually, it was more like 4:20 considering the final 30 seconds was a commercial for Diet Coke. Shave off an additional :30 or so for all the time O’Brien devoted to plugging the soft drink.

Which begs a question: Who exactly benefits when Diet Coke serves up a fizz-less can of Diet Conan? Even if Turner Broadcasting got the $200,000 Advertising Age reported Coke was seeking from marketers for “Zero,” it’s debatable whether it was money well spent.

Welcome to the tricky world of brand integration, where the continuum between inspired and insipid is well-populated by market entries that deviate far more often to the latter extreme–especially online, where ad dollars are essential to financing even micro-budgeted short-form production.

And when brand integration goes bad as it did here, even Diet Coke can leave a sour taste.

Maybe the idea for “Zero” sounded cuter in a pitch meeting than it came off in execution: O’Brien raced through an accelerated version of his show, complete with celebrity interview (“Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons) and musical guest (Steel Train), each of whom were on screen for a matter of seconds. Diet Coke cans got far more face time, from the three sets of cans littered throughout the conference room in which the quickie episode was shot to the blatant plugs from sidekick Andy Richter.

Given “Zero” was not billed as five-minute episode, it felt like a cheap stunt intended to cash a check from Coke rather than market the TBS program in a way that would satisfy fans. It may even have alienated those taken aback by how nakedly aggressive the product was plugged.

Of course, O’Brien’s fans–known collectively as Team Coco–would strongly disagree and suggest it was a brilliant send-up of the late-night format that only further whet their appetites for the return of their hero. But O’Brien could have just read the Yellow Pages, perhaps while sitting in a bathtub of soda, and they would have found that funny.

It’s a good time to be a part of O’Brien’s cult following, which has been masterfully cultivated online ever since his controversial departure from NBC (NYSE: GE). “Zero” is just the latest plank of a marketing campaign that has bombarded the Internet with all sorts of goodies, including a 24-hour “Coco Cam” that was a far funnier stunt than what surprisingly wasn’t dubbed “Diet Coco” or “Coco-Cola.”

No TV marketing campaign has ever focused more intensely on the internet, but even that seems strategically suspect. O’Brien’s fans are so insanely loyal that there’s little promotional muscle needed to push them to tune-in. This isn’t the midterm elections; there’s no need to “rally the base,” as politicos would put it.

A more conventional campaign might have done more to lure those who aren’t already in O’Brien’s camp. The same goes for a soft drink that knows better than making such an awkward hard sell. Whether you’re Conan or Coke, it pays to be more careful with online marketing.