Ambitious efforts to embed advertising in television programs are accelerating as advertisers expand plans to produce so-called branded entertainment. Now, scripted programs like mini-series and soap operas are joining the unscripted reality and game shows where the trend began.
But weaving pitches into programs is proving as much a challenge as creating pitches that interrupt programs. The pitfalls range from disappointing ratings results to schedule-juggling by the networks to loud complaints about the fuzziness of the boundary between entertaining consumers and selling to them.
Still, the movement toward branded entertainment is strengthening because major marketers are seeking alternatives to traditional advertising, particularly 30-second television commercials, as viewers grow increasingly able to skip, zip, zap and otherwise tune out prosaic peddling.
"In-program opportunities start to break through all the clutter in the marketplace, so we are pushing to find more and more as part of our desire to intersect more and more with our consumers' daily lives," said Peter Sterling, vice president for United States marketing at the McDonald's Corporation in Oakbrook, Ill.
McDonald's was 1 of 11 clients of the OMD USA media agency, including Clorox, FedEx, Nissan Motor, PepsiCo and Visa, whose brands were embedded in the mini-series "Five Days to Midnight" shown last week on the Sci Fi Channel cable network. There are glimpses of food, cups and bags from McDonald's in three of the five episodes.
"If there's going to be a can of soda on a table, it might as well be our client's can of soda," said Ray Warren, managing director at OMD USA in New York, part of the OMD division of the Omnicom Group. During "Five Days to Midnight," the Mountain Dew soda brand sold by PepsiCo makes three appearances along with a Pepsi-Cola vending machine and a clock decorated with vintage Pepsi-Cola logos.
"But we want it to be organic, building in our clients without being too obvious to viewers," Mr. Warren said. "And we want the writers and the creative community to say 'OMD is a good place to work with,' instead of 'OMD is so heavy-handed.' "
For all the product placements, a search of almost a dozen reviews of the mini-series by television critics for newspapers and magazines turned up no complaints about overzealous commercialization. Those involved in branded entertainment acknowledge that it can present problems by blurring the line between content and commercials, a concern being voiced more often by organizations like the Center for Digital Democracy and Commercial Alert.
"The ultimate test for good integration is if the characters would do the same exact thing" without the advertising affiliation, said Brian Scott Frons, president for the ABC Daytime division of the ABC Television Network Group in Los Angeles, part of the ABC unit of the Walt Disney Company.
That test was passed, Mr. Frons said, by branded entertainment initiatives now under way on two ABC soap operas. On "General Hospital," after two characters are involved in an automobile accident, they summon help using the car's OnStar personal security system.
"We're working to get our message out to the women's market in a more impactful way," said Andrew Young, marketing director for OnStar in Troy, Mich. "But there has to be a natural feeling this is a real-world situation that could actually happen."
"That's one reason why we've turned down a number of opportunities" to integrate OnStar into scripts of other shows, Mr. Young said, citing fears of looking "false or faked." The OnStar systems are sold by the General Motors Corporation.
And on the ABC soap opera "All My Children," the fictitious cosmetics company that has been part of its story line for years, Enchantment, is about to introduce a fragrance by that name, which in a life-imitating-art turnabout will go on sale in September at Wal-Mart stores. It is the first time that Wal-Mart will offer a private-label scent of its own.
"The idea of integrating an actual product into a fictional soap opera story line was fascinating," said Danette Thompson, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores in Bentonville, Ark. "But certainly, both Wal-Mart and ABC Daytime are sensitive" to worries that the cross-marketing will cross a line, she said.
"That was top of mind" in developing the plans, Ms. Thompson said, adding, "The proof will be how our customers vote at the registers." ABC Daytime will receive royalties from the sale of Enchantment.
Clearly, if the fragrance is a failure at real retail outlets, it could negatively affect "All My Children," and that would not be an issue if there was no branded-entertainment deal. Another question looming over such efforts is the uncertainty of ratings for scripted programs.
For instance, executives of Sci Fi, part of NBC Universal, declared that they were disappointed with the viewership for "Five Days to Midnight," which faced tough competition for younger male viewers from programs on other networks like the basketball playoffs. The mini-series averaged 1.69 million viewers over its run, less than half the average viewership for other recent Sci Fi mini-series like "Taken."
"We're going to succeed on some and fall short on others," Mr. Sterling of McDonald's said of the ratings. "But that's O.K., because it doesn't limit our desire to do this."
Mr. Warren of OMD USA said: "We're fine with it; we're pleased. Those are the risks you take. What I like is that it outdelivered what had been on in the same time period a year ago, up 47 percent in households, 40 percent in 18 to 49 and 51 percent in 25 to 54."
Then, too, there can be scheduling shifts for scripted shows. "Five Days to Midnight" was originally to have appeared over five nights, June 7-11, but Sci Fi ran two episodes on June 7, ending the run on June 10.
And ABC Daytime executives had long scheduled last Friday as the day the plot line involving OnStar would start to appear on "General Hospital." But then for days it appeared that ABC News would pre-empt the episode to cover the Ronald Reagan funeral services. In the end, the episode ran as scheduled.
Well, every good soap opera ought to have a cliffhanger.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. June 17, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.