About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

Product Placement Sheds Its Cozy Trappings

For years now, Patti Ganguzza has been a legend in the product-placement world. She got Snapple soft drinks on "Seinfeld," Rolling Rock beer on "The West Wing," and more recently landed a spot for Fruity Pebbles on "What I Like About You."

In a scene last season on the WB network comedy, the show's star, Amanda Bynes, is eating a bowl of the Kraft Foods Inc. cereal when her sister, played by Jennie Garth, pushes her out of the kitchen.

"I want to sit at a table like a mature adult and eat my Fruity Pebbles," exclaims a frustrated Ms. Bynes. Several minutes later, Ms. Garth yells, "Your Fruity Pebbles are on my folder."

This season, however, Ms. Ganguzza and her clients are being squeezed out of "What I Like About You." As part of a broader ad deal, the WB network has granted Procter & Gamble Co., the nation's largest advertiser, product-placement rights on the show.

The 45-year-old Ms. Ganguzza, who counts P&G rival Unilever as one of her clients, isn't the only one feeling the pinch. As consumers increasingly tune out conventional TV commercials, marketers are scrambling to embed their products in the programming itself. As a result, big ad firms, media buyers, talent agencies and entertainment-marketing start-ups are piling into the product-placement field, muscling aside the tiny firms like Ms. Ganguzza's that have dominated it for decades.

"Madison Avenue and big, integrated media companies are going to be responsible for product placement in the future," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. "It's just like what happened to the mom-and-pop video store" once Blockbuster moved in.

Like many old-line product-placement firms, Ms. Ganguzza's AIM Productions Inc. has built its business largely on personal relationships with prop masters and set decorators. That means hustling to help them find needed items -- even ones whose makers the firms don't represent. They also help TV shows meet tight production schedules by handling the time-consuming paperwork for the legal clearances needed to depict trademarked products.

The idea is to accumulate goodwill that might lead to placements for paying clients. So when "What I Like About You" needed several digital cameras last season, Ms. Ganguzza persuaded Fuji Photo Film Co. to send two. When a scene called for a set of expensive golf clubs, she helped secure a set of Titleist clubs from the Fortune Brands Inc. unit. Neither company paid her for the exposure.

More recently, the show's prop master called looking for bicycles. But, with no prospect of future placements for her clients, Ms. Ganguzza wasn't eager to help. "When they need something, will P&G bend over backward like us?" she asks.

"We will be involved in product placement on the show as it relates to P&G products," says P&G spokeswoman Molly Marburger. "We are not taking on the role of the product-placement firm for the show." A spokesman for the WB, a unit of Time Warner Inc., declined to comment.

Independent product placers like AIM, of Astoria, N.Y., make money by charging marketers annual fees ranging from about $20,000 to $80,000 or more to get products on a program's set or into the hands of a show's actors. TV-show staffers get the products in exchange for the possibility -- but not a guarantee -- of airtime. In exchange for her retainer, Ms. Ganguzza guarantees her clients a minimum of five placements a year, but last year one client got 68.

These days, firms that buy ad time are trying to include product placements in their ad deals with networks. For example, Havas SA's MPG media-buying arm is placing Tyson Foods Inc.'s chicken nuggets on a coming episode of "Still Standing" on CBS, as part of a big airtime package it bought from CBS parent ViacomInc. that also included traditional commercials and a sponsorship deal.

Talent agencies, meanwhile, say their closeness to Hollywood honchos gives them an edge in putting together placement deals like the pervasive Coca-Cola Co. sponsorship on Fox's "American Idol," crafted by Creative Artists Agency Inc.

But such arrangements could end up costing TV and cable networks big money, because media-buying firms, ad shops or talent agencies, property masters say, are less likely to do them the kind of favors that the small independents do all the time. "Product-placement companies are saving us thousands of dollars," says Mel Cooper, a set decorator on the WB comedy "Grounded for Life," adding, "Some sets need $20,000 worth of products."

Sabrina Wright, who was property master on "Sex and the City," agrees. "I would set my budget at $15,000 for episode and I would only spend $6,000 because I could get that many products for free through product-placement firms," says Ms. Wright, who had Ms. Ganguzza's help in finding everything from a crib to empty bottles of the wrinkle fighter Botox. "Without companies like AIM, I would have never come in under budget."

Sometimes the hunt for such props can be daunting. Ms. Ganguzza recalls getting a call from "The West Wing," for help in finding mattresses for a scene that featured the character Will Bailey setting up a campaign office in a mattress store. Although Ms. Ganguzza doesn't represent a mattress maker she called about 10 of them and finally persuaded Tempur-Pedic International Inc. to ship 30 mattresses to the Warner Bros. lot where the White House drama is shot. No money changed hands, but Tempur-Pedic's logo was visible in the scene.

The good relationship Ms. Ganguzza has secured with "The West Wing" has helped her to place clients such as InBev's Rolling Rock beer on the show's set.

Some requests are even more bizarre. For an episode in which Michael Richards's Kramer character practiced his golf swing at the beach, "Seinfeld" needed East Coast seaweed to make the California beach where it was taping look like a New York one. After several hours on the phone, Ms. Ganguzza got a Maine company to overnight a barrel of seaweed to the production. Cadbury Schweppes PLC's Snapple and Kraft's Post cereals are among the AIM clients that enjoyed "Seinfeld" placements.

The big outsiders entering the field are adopting a variety of approaches. In 2001, ad conglomerate Omnicom Group Inc., whose clients include PepsiCoInc. and Anheuser-Busch Cos., bought Davie Brown Entertainment, an established placement firm in Los Angeles. Grey Global Group Inc. has built its own operation from scratch. And Hollywood talent shops such as William Morris Agency Inc. boast fledgling arms that offer entertainment marketing, the industry's term for using entertainment vehicles to push products.

All of that poses a threat to Ms. Ganguzza, who says a steady stream of clients have told her they have been approached by her new, larger competitors. What's more, she says, divisions of France's Publicis Groupe SA and Omnicom have approached her about buying her firm. "We only had preliminary contact with AIM," says a spokeswoman for Publicis. An Omnicom spokeswoman declined to comment.

Ms. Ganguzza says she isn't opposed to selling her firm for the "right price." But, meanwhile, she is expanding her services -- for example, by offering to arrange elaborate paid placements on TV reality shows.


Suzanne Vranica, The Wall Street Journal. September 23, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.