Placements Acquire a Life of Their Own on Shows
New York Times
July 14, 2008
In the season finale of “CSI: NY” in May, the show’s
characters gathered around videoconferencing screens to
share information about a shooting. “She wants everybody
on a TelePresence call,” says an investigator, Lindsay
Monroe. “O.K., we have a full house, network’s secure,
you’re good to go, Stella.”
The unlikely supporting player in the episode was Cisco
Systems, which wanted to show off its TelePresence
videoconferencing system. Cisco’s on-air cameo may seem
puzzling to viewers more familiar with product
placements for soft drinks or cars (who would rush out
to buy a complex computer system after seeing it on
CSI?), but the placement resulted from careful
deal-making by the company’s entertainment agency, Davie
Brown Entertainment, with CBS and the show.
This is the kind of product placement woven into the
plot of a popular show that is of growing concern to the
Federal Communications Commission and consumer groups.
Product placements are “a huge, out-of-control issue,”
said Robert Weissman, the managing director of
Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group that aims to limit
commercial marketing. He said that the involvement of
advertisers in the shaping of scripts and plots
represented “fundamental encroachments on the
independence of the programming.”
Last month, the F.C.C. opened an inquiry into whether
there ought to be frank disclosure of such deals. Among
the suggestions are that the networks be required to
display on-screen crawls whenever a paid-for placement
is seen on television.
“We’re not saying they can’t do it — we’re just saying
they have to let the audience know what they’re doing,”
said Jonathan S. Adelstein, an F.C.C. commissioner.
“CSI: NY” is only one of Cisco’s many TV and movie
credits: the company keeps a long list on its Web site
of where its products have appeared, from Fox’s “24” and
NBC’s “Heroes” to films like “You, Me and Dupree” and “I
Am Legend.” Usually the sponsor’s brand is hard to miss:
on a “24” episode, for example, the words “Cisco
TelePresence” appear in a close-up that fills the
Mr. Adelstein argues that more disclosure is necessary.
He suggested considering that the brand names appear in
a minimum font size, and for a minimum length of time,
at the beginning or end of a show. For now, it is not
clear whether the F.C.C. will take action; it is
soliciting comments for the next few months, and may or
may not issue a ruling after that.
But in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, the F.C.C.’s
concerns appear archaic and intrusive. The type of
pop-up warnings that the F.C.C. is considering would
“completely disrupt the entertainment experience,” said
Tom Meyer, the president of Davie Brown, a leading brand
management agency in Los Angeles. “If their ultimate
goal is, can they do something that kills integration,
advertisers’ ability to integrate into a show, that
would do it,” he said.
Some viewers, too, say the F.C.C.’s concerns are a
little over the top. Realistically, does anyone wonder
why Simon Cowell has a huge Coke cup in front of him on
every “American Idol”? “I think that most people in the
United States know that there’s some financial
arrangement there,” said Ambar Rao, a professor of
marketing at Washington University in St. Louis. He said
that he did not oppose disclosure at the beginning or
end of a show, but “people watch a show for
entertainment, and if they’re constantly being reminded
that somebody has paid for this product or that product,
it just takes away from the experience.”
With agencies like Davie Brown becoming more
sophisticated and demanding about how their clients’
products are depicted, the issue has grown murkier.
These days consumer brands not only appear on shows, but
are also elaborately woven into the plot, with
advertisers calling a lot of the shots. Their agencies
approve television scripts, suggest plots that hinge on
the product, attend and critique the episode shoots, and
review the rough cuts of episodes.
“We almost consider ourselves to be the junior writers
on the show,” Mr. Meyer said.
Television writers are not happy about this development
— the Writers Guild of America West sent a letter to the
F.C.C. urging that an on-screen crawl disclose a
placement at the moment it occurs — but the networks and
producers are thrilled with the extra income they get
from product placement.
A one-episode integration on a moderately popular show
costs at least $100,000 but rarely goes over $500,000,
Mr. Meyer said. Then there is the cost of buying
commercials, which the network usually requires.
Mr. Meyer, a former Paramount Pictures executive, has
been at Davie Brown for almost a decade and has seen
product placement evolve well beyond its beginnings as a
prize for a game-show contestant.
For instance, when Staples was introducing a new
paper-shredding device called the MailMate in 2006,
Davie Brown approached the producers of “The Office” on
NBC. The agency wound up striking a two-episode deal: in
the first episode, the character Kevin Malone was given
the responsibility of shredding paper with the MailMate;
in the second, the character Dwight Schrute took a job
The Davie Brown team wanted to emphasize that the
shredder was small, so the shredder sat on Kevin’s desk.
It wanted to emphasize that it was sturdy, so Kevin
shredded not only paper, but also his credit card. And
it wanted to emphasize that the shredder was available
only at Staples.
“This is where the writers come up with their own ideas,
which we all loved,” Mr. Meyer said.
The episode closed with Kevin shredding lettuce and
making it into a salad; when a colleague asked where he
got the salad, he replied, “Staples.”
“Everyone has an opinion now on whether or not we’re
deceiving the public,” Mr. Meyer said. But “these shows
have always been funded by advertising, and if
advertising is changing, it has to be understood that
the mechanics of how we deliver advertising must change,
or advertisers will walk away.”
Davie Brown goes so far as to ask for final script
approval. Kevin McAuliffe, the vice president for
branded entertainment for NBC Universal’s cable
properties, which include Bravo and USA Network, said
that creativity always comes first, but that product
placement has a strong influence.
“Nine times out of 10, we have a client that goes with
us to the shoot, so they see the place, they see the
roughs, they see the placing,” Mr. McAuliffe said,
adding, “we’ve actually made changes on set” because of
As the F.C.C. seeks comments on how to disclose
products, Mr. Meyer of Davie Brown said he would not
object to a more overt disclosure, but not during the
show itself. Three of the largest advertising-industry
associations are pushing for the F.C.C. to stall a
decision on disclosure.
The ideal disclosure, Mr. Meyer said, is one that
“doesn’t interrupt the entertainment experience, but
achieves the brand’s objective, so they’re still willing
to fund the television model.”