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Nielsen to Follow Popularity of Product Placement on Prime-Time Television

On Fox's "24," Kiefer Sutherland jumps behind the wheel of a Ford Expedition. On "The King of Queens" on CBS, Kevin James prepares to dive into a Swanson Hungry Man TV dinner. This week, Sears laid claim to ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" to showcase Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances.

Commercial products have been winning a lot of prominent roles in prime-time television lately. Companies spend an estimated $360 million a year to get their products flashed on the movie screen. What they spend to do the same on TV, or even how often their products appear on the tube, has been largely unmonitored — until now.

On Thursday, TV ratings firm Nielsen Media Research said it had begun tracking product placements during prime-time shows on the major broadcast networks.

Since September, more than 100 people at a Nielsen facility in Shelton, Conn., have been watching tapes of TV shows and logging whenever they see a commercial product. They record the product and clock the amount of time it appears. Nielsen plans to sell the data to advertiser and network clients beginning in February, along with an estimate of the number of viewers who were watching when the bag of chips or carton of orange juice popped up.

Nielsen aims to eventually expand the service to include shows on cable networks and perhaps make available to subscribers the amount paid for each placement.

Television has warmly embraced product placement. This week, Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC announced a partnership with the media agency MindShare North America that would allow MindShare's advertising clients to work with ABC to create shows to become vehicles to peddle their products.

Not everyone is pleased.

"Network television is increasingly becoming an infomercial," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of the nonprofit group Commercial Alert. The group asked federal regulators to investigate whether product placements were deceptive, violating 76-year-old broadcasting standards. The Federal Trade Commission has agreed to do so.

Advertisers and networks say no one is being hoodwinked. They note that product placements and sponsorships have been a part of TV since Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater" in 1948 and a few years later when Dinah Shore sang "See the USA in Your Chevrolet" on her show.

What's more, advertisers say, product placement is important in the 200-plus-channel TV universe, where it is increasingly expensive to get viewers' attention. TV and advertising executives also worry that TiVo and other digital recording devices will allow more and more viewers to zap past the ads that provide about $17 billion a year in revenue to the broadcast networks.

"Product placement is becoming an important part of getting exposure for advertisers' brands and products," said Bill Cella, chairman of the media-buying giant Magna Global USA.

Commercial products have gotten plenty of exposure in "reality" shows: "Survivor" contestants have been rewarded with Doritos and Mountain Dew, and judges on "American Idol" drink out of Coca-Cola cups. Last summer, Cella's advertiser clients — American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi — had starring roles in the unscripted show "The Restaurant," which NBC plans to return for a second run next year.

Currently, most networks are not selling product placement time separately to their advertisers but as part of deals offered to companies that buy a lot of commercial time.

In the case of Fox's espionage thriller "24," Ford was the sole sponsor of the season premiere for the last two years. Sutherland, the show's star, has navigated the streets in a Mustang, an Expedition and an Excursion.

Product placement is "a delicate balance," said Jon Nesvig, Fox advertising president. "You don't want to alienate and wear out the viewers or stretch the use of these products so it seems forced. And advertisers also don't want it over the top either. They don't want to run the risk of offending viewers."

Posted on aef.com: December 9, 2003


Meg James, LA Times. December 5, 2003

Copyright © 2003 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.