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Placement, People!

Television’s 30-second spot is lurching toward extinction. For the show to go on, the ads will go in.
September 6, 2002

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.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered that there was real money to be made selling product placements in feature films. Many film buffs know that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was a significant launching pad for the then-new Reese’s Pieces and that the cute alien’s desire to “phone home” reflected an extensive telecom campaign to encourage casual long distance calls. E.T.’s director, Steven Spielberg, reportedly sold $25 million in product placements in Minority Report, his most recent film.

The rate of product placements on television has dramatically increased in the past year but many of you probably didn’t even notice. That’s because we live in such a heavily branded environment. Sports fans no longer go to Candlestick Park; they head for 3Com Park. Best-selling writers, like Steven King or Tom Clancy, embed references to specific brands into their fictions to give them a sense of verisimilitude. Racing game fans prefer to drive branded rather than generic vehicles. The early success of MTV demonstrated that consumers were willing to watch what amounted to commercials for rock performers as long as they were entertaining and well-crafted.

As inhabitants of a consumer culture, we broadcast our brand preferences through our clothing and our home decorations. So, why should television characters be any different? The playful references to breakfast cereal on Seinfeld or to specific fashion designers in Sex and the City become running gags. In the near future, local stations will superimpose brands into syndicated sitcoms, much the way that ESPN currently inserts billboards into the background of baseball broadcasts. That bag Ross is carrying in a favorite Friends episode may shift from K-Mart to Krispe Kreme depending on the highest bidder.

Advertisers are quickly discovering that context matters enormously when it comes to product placement. In a single 24 episode, the fictional cellphone users suffer dead batteries, disrupted signals, misplaced phones, coverage boundaries and turned off units. In dramas where life and death depends on whether a call is completed, suspense hinges on the limitations of current mobile technologies as much as their advantages. So, the verdict is still out as to whether 24 helps or hurts the telcos.

The pervasiveness of reality television is only partially a matter of ratings, since the genre represents an important testing ground for product placement strategies. Long-time viewers of Survivor, for example, may recall the Target parachute that became a fading tent, visible in the background of countless shots in the first series, or be able to imitate Tina’s southern accent as she described her craving for “Doe-ree-toes.” These programs strip contestants of material goods and deprive them of choice; we all get caught up in the emotional drama as players compete to win back their rights to consume.

Extending this same approach to fictional programming, The West Wing portrayed Republican Ainsley’s sense of displacement in a Democratic administration by having her try to unsuccessfully order Fresca from a White House eatery that serves only Sprite. Will we be more likely to recall brands if they are linked to dramatic turning points or become defining traits of particular characters?

On the one hand, product placements may be a boon to storytellers, allowing them to sustain a desired emotional pitch across a single episode without commercial interruptions. The commercial-free debut of 24 is being heavily promoted as an aesthetic breakthrough. On the other hand, product placements may significantly compromise artistic integrity. Will television stories be increasingly structured to promote specific brands? Netizens used product placements to identify 24’s turncoat early in the season: since Apple had invested heavily in placements, the show’s good guys consistently used Macs; the baddies used PCs.

Early research suggests that product placements yield much higher levels of consumer recall than traditional spots. Of course, as the number of product placements increases, their effectiveness will likely decrease. I counted 25 different products hawked during the commercial breaks of a single episode of 24. Who can remember them all? The sparser use of product placements offers a short-term advantage, but what happens when every object in the series is branded?

Consider this as a thought experiment. I have mentioned 21 specific brands (not counting networks) and 15 films, franchises or series in the course of this column. How many of them can you recall? How many of them will you recall tomorrow? Does trying to recall the references to specific programs increase your ability to identify the brands? This experiment will give you some sense of the challenges confronting the advertising industry and why they think, in the short run at least, product placements may be a winning strategy. What consumers think may be another matter altogether.

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