TV teens have more sex and TV cops fire their guns far more often than their real world counterparts. Television characters are also much more likely to whip out a cell and phone a friend. In a randomly selected episode of the Fox thriller, 24, I counted 18 acts of telecommunication (roughly one every other minute, if you count only program content). On ABC’s Alias, there were 8 cell phone calls in a randomly selected episode (not counting the subliminal sounds of cells ringing under the soundtrack).Last year, Nokia decided to sponsor the debut episode of Alias without any commercial interruptions and the second season debut of 24 will similarly be hosted by Ford. Nokia nor Ford don’t need to interrupt the tense action for their spots because the programs have become, in effect, hour long advertisements for the mobile lifestyle, if not their specific products. The Verizon logo was visible in the background of several shots in the Alias episode I examined.
The spy drama has long been a vehicle for shaping lifestyle aspirations. James Bond used to drive an Aston Martin and now drives a BMW; he likes his martinis shaken not stirred and for a long time, Bond was used to market Smirnoff. The movies’ “bond girls” emerged from an exclusive deal between producer Albert Broccoli and Playboy magazine editor Hugh Hefner. The spy film genre consistently plays on our technolust and as such, has been prime real estate for product placements for consumer electronics, cars, even sunglasses. (Remember Tom Cruise’s exploding Oakleys in Mission: Impossible 2!)
The return of the spy drama to network television last season is one sign of a shift in how networks relate to sponsors, and a harbinger of things to come. Rishad Tobaccowala, president of the media-buying group, Starcom MediaVest, sparked panic at a gathering of television executives this summer when he predicted that thirty second commercial will be dead by 2005, thanks to new technologies that help consumers skip spots. Fox Television chairman Sandy Grushow argues that the networks are nowhere near prepared for such a development: “Not only will everyone have to get drenched, but struck by lightening before significant progress is made,” he says.
As network executives search for their umbrellas, product placements are the most discussed alternative, though no one really believes they can replace the $8 billion spent each year on adverts. Watch American television closely and you will see the networks testing various ways of embedding brand references into the shows.
On 24, the star Kiefer Sutherland drives a Ford Explorer (placement bought by the company) but the plot’s heavy reliance on cell phones makes it attractive to advertisers, such as Nokia, Verizon and Sprint, since they are still trying to create a demand for mobile communication among Americans, who lag behind the rest of the developed world in cellphone use.
For much of broadcast history, integrated commercial messages were the norm. Department stores owned many of the first radio stations and used magazine-format shows to promote products, only belatedly adding entertainment to attract listeners. Single sponsors own most series outright and exercised tight control over their content. The great radio clowns of the 1930s and 1940s often spoofed their sponsors: W.C. Fields, for example, ribbed his backer, Lucky Strike, with long rambling monologues about his son Chester (a reference to a rival brand); Gracie Allen interrupted George Burn’s pitch for Carnation Condensed Milk by asking how they milked all of the carnations. The “soap opera” genre took its name in the 1930s because the melodramatic radio shows attracted housewives who made the decisions about small household purchases.
By the early 1960s, however, shifts in federal communications policy and in television’s mode of production resulted in the definitive separation of commercials from programming. The networks use the term “bumper” to refer to the federally mandated buffer between children’s programming and adverts. Sponsors have long sought ways to break through that bumper. In the early 1980s, for example, toy manufactures offered significant subsidies to local stations if they would air series, such as He-Man or She-Ra, which critics described as little more than half hour commercials for Mattel. Protests temporarily halted this practice.