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So That’s Why They Drink Coke on TV

Advertising is often like a game of cat and mouse. Consumers try as hard as they can to run away from sales pitches and commercial jingles, so marketers continually seek new ways to hunt them down.

One of the more popular tricks — oops, I meant to say tactics — advertisers are using today is branded entertainment, which ranges from plopping a Pepsi can into a scene to writing entire television scripts based around Oreo cookies. They like this approach so much that they’re increasing the money they spend on so-called product integrations at double-digit rates, making it one of the faster growth areas for an otherwise stalled television industry.

But does product integration dupe consumers? The Federal Communications Commission is considering investigating this question, and the commissioners may add it to their public agenda as early as Tuesday.

“Networks may be turning to more subtle and sophisticated means of incorporating commercial messages into traditional programming,” said Kevin J. Martin, the commission’s chairman, at a September public hearing. “I believe it is important for consumers to know when someone is trying to sell them something.”

But don’t they know already? I, for one, always assume when I see a brand in a television show or a movie that someone paid to have it there. And if product placement allows me to see fewer commercials, isn’t that a fair trade-off? One program on CW this year, called “CW Now,” runs its full 26 minutes without commercials. The show is about hot products and lifestyle news, so it is easy for the program to interweave ad messages.

But that’s an exception. Nearly all programs rife with product placement still blast us with commercials.

Even so, television executives are not eager to address Mr. Martin’s concerns. After all, some advertisers think the value of product integration is the ability to sneak up on viewers. They want viewers to think that the lead characters of “Gilmore Girls” really liked eating Pop-Tarts for breakfast and that the women in “Desperate Housewives” really do think Nissans are cool.

Some of the proposed solutions to the problem sound more annoying than the product placements themselves. For example, every time Paula Abdul takes a sip from a giant red cup splashed with the Coca-Cola logo on “American Idol,” a disclaimer box could be superimposed over the cup. When young guys flirt with beautiful babes on “The Game Killers” on MTV, a banner on the bottom of the screen could say, “This program was co-created by Unilever’s Axe deodorant.”

Other proposals include a partial ban on branded entertainment during the day and early evening to keep children from viewing it, or even a total ban.

But it’s hard to imagine advertisers agreeing to any of that, and, remember, they hold the purse strings.

Advertisers elbowed their way into the top 20 shows on cable and broadcast networks a whopping 110,296 times in the first half of this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Coca-Cola alone appeared 3,054 times on broadcast network programs over that period. That’s big money. In 2005, advertisers spent just under $1 billion on television product integrations in the United States, and that amount should more than quadruple by 2010, according to forecasts by PQ Media, a media research firm in Stamford, Conn. Product integrations are usually mentioned only at the end in the credits — if at all.

It could become even worse online, where consumers have even less patience for commercials.

Surprisingly, some advertising executives say they would support disclosure requirements from the government.

"I agree with the F.C.C. Transparency, the truth are the most powerful tools,” said David Lubars, the chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America, which helped Gillette to create a seven-episode program that was shown on ABC last spring. It was called “Gillette Young Guns,” making it clear in the title that Gillette was behind the program.

Television writers, for the most part, hate that they are effectively becoming ad writers. Those who protest requests to write in a product are usually overruled, said Jody Frisch, director of public policy and government affairs of the Writers Guild of America, West, which is on strike.

Consumer advocacy groups have been complaining about advertisers trampling into content for years. But does the average Joe at home really care? Or does the tactic work so well that he doesn’t notice the pitch?


Louise Story, The New York Times. December 9, 2007

Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.