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Brands increasingly make presence known in TV shows

TV networks and advertisers are busily tearing down the wall that for about 40 years has separated programming from ads. Networks are scouring their schedules for places to weave brands and products into prime-time shows.

The practice is known as product placement, although some practitioners prefer to call it ''brand casting.'' That's because it involves producers and networks effectively turning cars, soft drinks, perfumes and other products into co-stars -- as with Coca-Cola's ubiquity on Fox's American Idol.

It's become so prevalent that Nielsen Media Research, which generates the TV ratings used to set ad rates, this past season began measuring how often products and brand names appear or are mentioned within shows. Nielsen found that in the TV season that ended May 31, advertisers paid more than $300 million to producers and the big broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB and UPN) to have products in shows.

That's sure to grow this season as networks look for more opportunities for product placement in prime-time dramas and sitcoms -- beyond the reality, daytime and late night-shows where the line between ads and programming is rapidly disappearing.

''It's definitely a new twist on how we do business,'' says Jo Ann Ross, president of network sales for CBS, who helped rewrite the rules for ''branded entertainment'' with Mark Burnett, creator and executive producer of Survivor. ''Every supplier has to be aware that clients are going to want to do more of this as time goes on.''

No. 1-rated CBS is now exploring product-placement deals for its prime-time scripted shows. These dramas and comedies represent ''the Holy Grail'' says Mitch Kanner of The Firm, a Beverly Hills talent agency that specializes in placing products. ''You can incorporate product attributes into story arcs.''

Why the gold rush? Advertisers and networks want to protect themselves from new technologies, led by digital video recorders (DVRs) such as TiVo, that make it easy for viewers to record shows, then skip the ads.

More than 20% of all homes will have a DVR by 2008, up from 3% in 2003, PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts. About half of TiVo owners jump past ads when watching shows they've recorded, the company has found.

No wonder Madison Avenue clamored for product placement opportunities during the recent ''upfront'' ad sales market, at which TV companies pre-sold more than $15 billion of ad time for the season that begins Sept. 20, Ross says.

TV executives are more than ready to oblige. ''We're all under pressure to find different ways to make money at the network. You can only cut costs so much,'' explains Brian Scott Frons, president of ABC Daytime.

Product placements make money. For example:

  • Burnett and NBC are asking up to $25 million from sponsors for ''product integration'' and advertising exclusivity in the upcoming season of Burnett's The Apprentice with Donald Trump. For Sylvester Stallone's boxing reality show, The Contender, on NBC, Burnett and his partners are looking at $13 million apiece from auto, soft drink and telecom sponsors.
  • Coke and Ford ponied up an estimated $20 million last season for their third season of sponsoring Idol. Judges such as Simon Cowell sip from Coke cups, while contestants ham it up in Ford vehicles in music videos on the series.
  • Burnett now gets up to $14 million a season from marketers such General Motors and Pepsi's Mountain Dew to weave products into his long-running reality hit Survivor. What the money buys: During Survivor Africa, the word ''avalanche'' was the answer to a reward challenge. Viewers then saw winner Lex van den Berghe piloting a Chevrolet Avalanche across the African plain to deliver medical supplies to hospitals treating AIDS patients.

Critics want 'pop-up' warning

Critics say that the TV networks are victimizing unwitting viewers, particularly children, by obscuring the lines between ads and content.

Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert is petitioning the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the practice on the grounds that it makes current sponsorship ID requirements obsolete. The group wants the feds to force TV networks to show ''pop-up'' warnings as the paid placements occur.

''It's one more example of how TV is becoming one big infomercial,'' warns Commercial Alert director Gary Ruskin. ''If advertisers get their way, TV characters will be Pringles potato chips.''

But the Freedom to Advertise Coalition of ad industry trade groups calls Ruskin's pop-ups a ''ludicrous'' idea that would make TV ''unwatchable.'' Current rules that allow product placements as long as sponsors are noted at the end of a show are enough, they argue.

Burnett says the key is to respect the intelligence of consumers. ''The rule of thumb: Make it obvious enough that the public doesn't think you're trying to slide it by them,'' he says.

Other TV executives say the practice is just another way to pay the bills. ''This isn't some kind of weird subliminal advertising where we're trying to brainwash people,'' says Geri Wang, ABC's vice president of ad sales, who signed Sears to sponsor Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for a second year. ''TV is first and foremost an entertainment medium. But it's also a business that we run.''

An old idea made new again

Product placement is as old as broadcasting. In the 1950s, following long-established practice in radio, marketers frequently bankrolled TV shows such as Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater. The practice faded in the 1960s as networks took control of their shows.

Now, it's back to the future. For example, media services company MindShare and clients Unilever and Sears are producing and financing the prime-time drama, The Days, airing at 10 p.m. ET Sunday on ABC.

''Every client is looking to have its advertising stand out more, to be unique,'' says Marc Goldstein, CEO of MindShare, which also arranged a deal to have Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie nosh at Burger King on Fox's Simple Life 2.

Ford sponsored the interruption-free debut of Fox's prime-time drama 24 for two seasons. It ran 2- to 3-minute ads at the beginning and end of the broadcast, while hero Kiefer Sutherland drove Ford SUVs in the show.

For signing up as exclusive automotive sponsor of Sex and the City reruns on TBS, Mitsubishi gets customized vignettes -- promotional commercials that mix scenes from the series with Mitsubishi cars and trucks that will air on TNT and sister Turner network TBS.

''Advertisers want the most bang for their bucks, so programmers like ourselves are coming up with ideas for product integration,'' explains David Levy, president of ad sales and marketing for Turner Entertainment, a unit of Time Warner.

Many ways to work in an ad

Whether it's called ''branded entertainment,'' ''product integration'' or ''contextualized commerce,'' product placement is taking many forms:

  • Product plugs. In the most typical form, marketers pay to have brands appear in shows and on sets. On Idol, contestants relax on red couches in the Coca-Cola ''Red Room.''

A seemingly endless stream of fashion and beauty products has shown up in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo and NBC.

Fox's Idol takes the title for the most ''brand occurrences'' on TV, according to Nielsen. Coke is the most-seen brand.

  • Plot placements. This calls for weaving products directly into scripts and plotlines.

An example is the deal cut by ABC Daytime and Wal-Mart for All My Children. When the leaders of the fictional Enchantment and Fusion cosmetics companies aren't sleeping around on the show, they plot the launch of the new Enchantment fragrance. The plot device promotes the real launch of the Enchantment fragrance in Wal-Mart later this year.

ABC has done similar script placement with Revlon and General Motors' OnStar navigation system -- with no consumer complaints, says Frons.

  • Title placements. When the brand name is in the show's name, it's hard for viewers to miss. That's what Pepsi did with its Pepsi Smash concert series on WB.
  • Ad placements. Rather than putting their products into shows, some marketers simply provide print ads or posters to decorate sets. DiMassimo Brand Advertising, got a poster for client Crunch Fitness on the wall of Meadow's dorm room in The Sopranos.

While commercial-free HBO does not accept payment for placements, most come at a high price, and results are hard to quantify. That has some companies thinking twice about the tactic.

Chrysler is passing on a second season of The Apprentice, despite what Burnett calls one of the greatest placements ever: Winner Bill Rancic driving away in a Chrysler Crossfire before 40 million viewers on the series finale.

''We didn't want to commit so much, either monetarily or resource-wise,'' says Chrysler Group spokeswoman Suraya DaSante. But she adds that ''we still think product integration is a smart way to advertise and will look at other opportunities closely.''

Even without Chrysler, viewers of round two of The Apprentice ''will see integration like they've never seen it before,'' he says. Among guest stars: Procter & Gamble, Levi's, Toys R Us, Mattel and Pepsi.

Placement needs to blend in

The plugs can be so blatant that even advertisers wince. Burnett acknowledges that placement might have been ''too prevalent'' on his The Restaurant on NBC.

The placements for Mitsubishi, American Express and Coors seemed ''ham-handed'' compared with Burnett's other shows, says Scott Donaton, editor of Advertising Age and author of the new book, Madison & Vine. ''If it's overdone, if it's not seamless, then you risk turning off your audience,'' he says. ''In that case, everybody loses.''

While a parade of corporate guest stars might not work on every show, Burnett says he has no worries about The Apprentice: ''It is a business show, after all.''


Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. August 12, 2004

Copyright © 2004 USA TODAY. All rights reserved.