it's Jack. Who does our phones?'
The Guardian (UK)
June 16, 2008
Andy Burnham, the
culture secretary, may have given product placement the
thumbs down in Britain - but in the US Jack Bauer still
wants you to use Dell Computers and Ford cars. Although,
if that’s not quite your style, you could always turn to
Michael Scott, American boss of The Office, who only
uses Hewlett Packard. Or the casts of Heroes and
Desperate Housewives, who would be disappointed if you
drove anything but a Nissan.
In a country where even the subtitling is sponsored and
the running time of most shows is almost one-third
commercials, no opportunity to sell is missed. Which is
why there were a massive 117,976 individual product
placements across America’s top 11 TV channels in the
first three months of this year, according to Nielsen
Media Research. And the phenomenon is growing - the top
10 prime-time programmes alone were responsible for an
increase of 39% in product placement in the last year
across the six biggest channels.
Reality TV offers huge scope for product placement. The
Biggest Loser, in which contestants compete to lose the
most weight for a $250,000 prize, was responsible for
almost 4,000 different plugs from companies such as
Quaker Oats, Wrigley’s Extra chewing gum and Subway -
all vying for a share of the $60bn weight-loss market.
Fans online described the segments, one of which
included a trainer handing out sugar-free gum for no
apparent reason while discussing how great it was, as
everything from “random” to “painful”.
American Idol, the most watched show on US TV, also
managed to shoehorn in more than 3,000 placements.
Coca-Cola has its logo on the cups judges keep on their
table, Ford gives the winners cars, Old Navy dresses the
contestants and Clairol does their hair. AT&T, the
mobile phone company, is rumoured to pay up to $50m for
a deal which mixes traditional ads and frequent product
But it’s not just reality TV where product placement is
rife. Fans of Heroes were appalled by a recent scene in
which cheerleader Claire gets a Nissan Rogue SUV.
“Daddy, you’re giving me the Rogue,” squeals Hayden
Panettiere as her father hands over the keys. “They
shamelessly contrived a scene thats [sic] sole purpose
was product placement,” said one fan on the tech blog
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any TV that
doesn’t feature some product placement. Even Lost, a
show that takes place on a desert island, managed to fit
a Motorola phone into its plotline.
When you factor in the enormous film market (just think
of I, Robot or any James Bond movie) and the burgeoning
placements in computer games such as Metal Gear Solid
IV, the dollars mount up. The estimate for the total
yearly spend on product placement deals in the US from
the media agency PQMedia is a staggering $7bn to $10bn.
That’s a lot of revenue for producers - and
coincidentally also slightly more than the GDP of
With so much at stake, television writers are
complaining that they’re becoming advert writers,
according to the New York Times. Those who protest about
requests to work a product into a script are overruled,
Jody Frisch, director of public policy and government
affairs of the Writers Guild of America, told the paper.
Dr John McCarty, head of marketing at The College of New
Jersey, thinks the huge growth in product placement is a
direct consequence of DVRs, which allow people to record
programmes and thus fast-forward ads, becoming
widespread in America. “Product placement is a way of
getting the product to a person in a way that they can’t
avoid it,” he says.
Since ET caused sales of Reece’s Pieces chocolate to
spike back in 1982, after the critter adopted it as his
favourite snack, advertisers have been steadily
increasing product placement. But is the strategy still
effective 26 years later?
“In general it works best if it’s not perceived as
product placement, if it’s natural,” says McCarty. “In
the show Sex and the City, and the movie too, they
talked about a lot of brands of clothing. But those
women in that situation would be expected to know about
fashion, so it didn’t seem unreasonable for them to
mention those names. You expect to see brands in a
story. People in TV shows are going to use products and
it’s almost better to have a real brand than a can that
just says ‘Cola’ or something.
“The problem is any time the storyline has gotten bogged
down around the product, and it seems unrelated,” he
adds. “There shouldn’t be a tug between the people
telling the story and the commercial enterprise.”
But for some, any product placement is too much. Kalle
Lasn is editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, an
anti-advertising publication. He thinks that it’s
unethical to sell to Americans without their realising
it. “It’s especially bad for kids. It’s totally
unconscionable when it’s been proven that they are so
susceptible to branding.”
But surely we enjoy the shows, and if traditional ad
revenues are declining, they have to be made up
somewhere? “I just don’t buy that we have to subject our
kids to brainwashing to fund TV and movies. There were
lots of very good movies made before product placement
which did just fine,” Lasn says.
NBC Universal, makers of Heroes and The Office, couldn’t
find a spokesperson to respond in time for this article.
McCarty says: “The public in general isn’t all that
bothered. They probably won’t be until it gets to the
point where all they’re talking about on TV is the
product.” If that happens, he says, viewers can “vote
with their remote control”.
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