product placement out into the open
Los Angeles Times
June 29, 2008
I love TiVo. The ability to skip TV commercials is right
up there with microwave popcorn as one of those
life-altering advances that make the world a better
Not surprisingly, though, broadcasters and advertisers
have responded to TiVo and other digital video recorders
by boosting the number of paid product placements in
shows -- a practice known in industry circles as
With the line between entertainment and marketing
growing increasingly blurry, the Federal Communications
Commission last week proposed tighter regulation of
"We need to make sure we're updating our rules for the
way consumers are using technology and the way
programmers are responding," FCC Chairman Kevin J.
Martin told me. "We're hearing from consumers that it's
harder and harder for them to distinguish" what's in a
show for entertainment purposes and what's advertising.
Most product-placement disclosures now come fleetingly
in the closing credits. The FCC is proposing to make
those more prominent, as well as including notifications
both before and after a show.
Product placement grew 33.7% last year, bringing in $2.9
billion for the producers of movies and TV shows,
according to PQ Media, a market researcher. The practice
is expected to grow 23% this year to $3.6 billion.
According to Nielsen Co., NBC's "The Biggest Loser" is
the hands-down heavyweight in the field, with 3,977
placements in the first quarter of 2008. That includes
mentions of a particular product or sponsor.
Fox's "American Idol" was second with 3,291 placements,
followed by a couple more NBC shows, "The Apprentice"
(1,646) and "Deal or No Deal" (1,603).
The price of each placement is negotiated separately by
producers and advertisers.
A coalition of 23 advocacy and consumer groups wrote to
the FCC this month urging commissioners to crack down on
the practice, especially in shows watched by kids.
"The hijacking of content by marketers makes a mockery
of TV ad limits, threatens public health and undermines
parents' ability to monitor media and marketing
influences," the groups warned.
Tara Walls, who oversees "entertainment marketing"
(read: product placement) at PR powerhouse Rogers &
Cowan, said there was no reason to tinker with current
"Let's give consumers a little credit," she said.
"They're smart. They can read the end credits.
"When consumers see Coke on 'American Idol,' " Walls
added, "they know that Coke paid to put it there."
That might be true in such egregious cases of in-show
marketing. But what about when a TV character casually
interacts with a product that was included in a scene at
a marketer's request, or a show that's chockablock with
In a letter to the FCC last week, the western division
of the Writers Guild of America called for real-time
notification whenever product placement occurs in a
scene. It said a text message, or crawl, should appear
at the bottom of the screen alerting viewers to the fact
that a paid ad has appeared in the program.
"Since crawls are used with relative frequency, and
viewers are accustomed to this practice, such a crawl
would be no more intrusive than the warnings required
for pharmaceutical ads or the network identifiers, or
'bugs,' that are now a mainstay of our TV visual field,"
said division President Patric Verrone.
Remember "Pop-Up Video" on VH1? That's how I'd like to
see the disclosure made. Every time a promoted product
appears, a little box would open naming the product's
This would make the disclosure perfectly clear and at
the same time reveal each product placement for what it
is: a corporate intrusion on what was supposed to be an
The FCC's Martin said he understood the value of
real-time disclosure, "but I'm not sure consumers want a
pop-up every time there's a product placement."
On the other hand, he admitted he was an avid user of
his cable company's DVR technology and routinely zips
"I think it's awesome," Martin said. "But I recognize
that I want to continue having high-quality
For that reason, he said, a degree of product placement
is probably necessary to bring in revenue for
John Ellis, chief marketing officer for Los
Angeles-based NextMedium Inc., which operates an online
marketplace for buying and selling product placements,
said viewers don't mind the practice. In fact, he said,
they like it.
"Consumers enjoy seeing content with real brands," Ellis
said. "Consumers respond to real brands."
He said the next big step will be shooting shows in
front of green screens, allowing broadcasters to sell
placement rights after an episode is finished and
virtual sets to be digitally inserted based on
After that, perhaps five or 10 years down the road, will
come interactive technology to let TV viewers highlight
a product on the screen and instantly receive more
Imagine "Sex and the City" with this sort of technology.
As Sarah Jessica Parker cycles through designer outfits,
viewers could obtain details about specific dresses or
shoes, and even where to buy them.
That could be kind of cool. The danger, of course, is
that TV shows would become little more than virtual
catalogs for advertisers, which in turn would sponsor
only those programs that allowed them to display their
That'll be something for the FCC to consider down the
road. For now, greater disclosure of who's paying for
what will have to suffice. As Martin put it, "I believe
it is important for consumers to know when someone is
trying to sell them something."
For the record, no paid promotions were included in the
writing of this column. Yet.
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