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Image: Scene from a "MacGruber" episode
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Was the "Saturday Night Live" skit "MacGruber" a comedy bit or a Pepsi commercial? It aired as a comedy sketch on SNL, then during the big game as an ad.
updated 2/2/2009 10:33:29 PM ET 2009-02-03T03:33:29

Was "MacGruber" a "Saturday Night Live" sketch or Pepsi commercial?

Depending on when you were watching television over the weekend, it was hard to tell.

On Saturday night's "SNL," the recurring bit starring cast member Will Forte aired three times during the show, each time with comical over-the-top promotion for Pepsi.

Then on Sunday night, one of the same "MacGruber" sketches — in which Forte plays a parody of the '80s action series "MacGyver" — aired during NBC's broadcast of the Super Bowl as a commercial.

As it turns out, all were paid commercials by Pepsi, made in collaboration with producer Lorne Michaels' "Saturday Night Live." The segments weren't product placement, but commercials paid for by Pepsi and produced by "SNL." Though they appeared to be sketches on "SNL," they ran during allotted commercial breaks.

NBC Entertainment Co-Chairman Ben Silverman said Pepsi paid full freight for the spots — which sold for about $3 million per 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

"They really made it very funny and obvious, so I don't think there was any confusion," said Silverman. "Everything is ongoing experimentation, but the reality is we need to evolve and do more and more things."

Added Silverman: "It's not just an ad for Pepsi, it's an ad for `Saturday Night Live.'"

Branding expert Peter Arnell was in charge of PepsiCo's Super Bowl campaign, which also included a 3-D commercial for its SoBe Life Water.

"The creative space is `SNL's' and they were commercials we would have bought, so the economics were as normal as it ever was," said Arnell. "It's the un-advertising advertising."

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The first "MacGruber" sketch/commercial that ran during "SNL" came amid other commercials — after a movie trailer for "The Pink Panther 2," which is what host Steve Martin was (what else?) promoting.

Fans may be uncomfortable with sale
PepsiCo American Beverages chief Massimo d'Amore, who watched the game from a luxury box with NBC and Michaels, declined to say how much the company paid the network for the spots. An estimated 95.4 million people watched the Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl, making it second only to last year's game as the most popular ever, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Watch, vote on 2009’s best Super Bowl ads"We have been working together all along in a true partnership," said d'Amore. "This is definitely not a one-off. It's a very determined step to connect with the consumers of today in a new contemporary way."

The ads include all the same usual characteristics that the sketch series normally does: its cheesy opening theme song, a frightened sidekick (played by fellow cast member Kristen Wiig) and MacGruber's inevitable distraction (in this case, a Pepsi). The real MacGyver — Richard Dean Anderson — also made a cameo.

That a marquee "SNL" sketch would be sold to a marketer might rub some loyal viewers the wrong way. Fans, after all, tune in for comedy, not for well-dressed commercials.

Silverman says the viewer only wins, since the Pepsi sketches replaced regular commercials. (He also noted that "SNL" talent was paid for the work outside of their normal salaries.)

"It wasn't inside the show," said Silverman. "Lorne really protected the show. I think the fans of `Saturday Night Live' got to see a `MacGruber' that they wouldn't have otherwise seen."

Michaels wasn't available to comment Monday.

"What we're doing is selling entertainment vehicles and marketing platforms," said Silverman, who has looked for other revenue streams for NBC as network TV ratings have slid. "This is where programming is going."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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