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This bug's for you

High fences make good neighbors. And good advertisers. Actually, any demarcation will do, even a line drawn in the dirt with a stick, keeping entertainment here, commercial messages there. The same applies to the public sector: Schools and other government institutions go in this box; advertising, in that box.

It might seem late in the day to defend this antiquated principle of appropriate separation of interests, considering that 12,000 schools daily pipe commercials into the classroom via television sets provided courtesy of Primedia's Channel 1. Still, remnant fences are discovered every day-one can tell by the sounds of dynamite detonation that mark their obliteration. A school board in New Jersey renames an elementary school's building the ShopRite of Brooklawn Gymnasium. The solons of Utah's state Legislature pass legislation establishing, in case there had been any doubt, that the official state snack is Jell-O.

Leave it to programming wizards at the WB network (motto: Don't Trust Anyone Over 20) to think outside the box, giving us this week a new reality series, No Boundaries. The game is to traverse 2,000 miles, from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Arctic Circle, in pursuit of a grand prize that includes a Ford Explorer Sport Trac. The show's title may remind you of Ford's current marketing slogan-they are one and the same. If you own a 50 percent equity stake in the production, as Ford does, you enjoy more prerogatives than the sponsor that buys time by the minute. On this "remarkable journey of mind, body, and spirit," conveyance will be provided in various forms, including unbranded kayaks, seaplanes, and llamas. When the script calls for trucks, however, the producers will not anguish over brands or whether to set up camera angles as flattering to the machines as to the human participants.

Blends and bugs. Coca-Cola is developing Stepping Stones, an hourlong drama for the summer starring Gregory Hines, which an executive at its advertising agency lovingly describes as "blending a commercial message with a program so that the program is the message." Fortunately, not everyone in advertising regards this as a welcome development. Irwin Gotlieb, an executive with WPP Group, warns networks not to put shows on the air just because a single advertiser pulls out a checkbook. "We have to give the viewers what they want to watch, not what we want them to watch." Is anyone else listening?

Some will claim that single-sponsor production of television programming returns us to an earlier time, of Kraft Playhouse and Texaco Star Theater, the golden age of television. This would be more credible if Kraft had ignored the artistic independence of its playwrights and ordered up dramas featuring Velveeta as the most prominent prop.

Today, digital technology lets sponsors insert their brands into the picture in ways that were scarcely imaginable in the 1950s. Sports broadcasting has led the way, with, for example, a virtual billboard that is digitally projected onto the fence behind home plate and visible only to TV viewers. Syndicated shows offer infinite opportunities for digital insertion of branded products. A demo now making the rounds shows fat-free SnackWells sitting on the table in an old Bewitched episode.

Advertisers claim that they must use any means at hand to recapture ground lost to remote-control clickers and digital video recorders like TiVo. Warren Weideman of Park Avenue Productions speaks with the bluntness of a battle-hardened survivor just returned from the front lines: "You tell me people watch TV commercials, and I'll call you a liar. The only people who watch commercials are in the ad business." The next step in the arms race is to superimpose a sponsor's icon on the screen just as some cable networks insert a floating ID stamp. In industry parlance, this ineradicable icon is called, all too aptly, a "bug."

Paid ads and promotions occupy no less than 25 percent of broadcast time; audiences can neither run nor hide from the onslaught. So inured to omnipresent selling are they, viewers no longer blink when commercial messages pop up in formerly unexpected places. The indifference of consumers is seen in a recent poll: Only 13 percent of respondents said that they would think less of shows that accepted product placements.

Can a sponsor ever be overly zealous and go too far? I nominate the National Pork Board, which sponsors an auto race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway that it insists be officially named the Pork the Other White Meat 400.

But sometimes sponsors don't have to even lift a finger. When asked what Kraft, Jell-O's parent, had done to persuade the Utah Legislature to move aside other state business to take up the question of designating a state snack, a company vice president (named Ann Fudge) replied, "Are you kidding? We couldn't think up something this good."


Randall E. Stross, usnews.com. March 11, 2002

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