On Television, Brands Go From Props to Stars
York Times, 10/2/05
LATER this month on "The Office," Michael Scott,
the painfully clueless regional manager of a
paper supply company, will embrace casual
Fridays in his own inimitable style. Eager to
show off his newly trim physique, particularly
his backside, the character - played by Steve
Carell - will proudly model his new jeans to his
alternately befuddled and appalled employees.
And to anyone who will listen, he will proclaim
something along the lines of "I love my new
This cringe-inducing bit of comedy will have
been made possible in part by Levi Strauss. The
company and the creators of "The Office," the
NBC critical darling, are willing participants
in the next generation of product placement. No
longer are brands mere props on the set or the
supporting stars of reality shows. Advertisers
and their representatives are increasingly
working with a show's writers and producers and
the network's ad sales staff to incorporate
products into the story lines of scripted shows
as part of more elaborate marketing deals.
What Hollywood and Madison Avenue
euphemistically call "brand integration" was
hard to miss last season. Gabrielle Solis, Eva
Longoria's character on ABC's "Desperate
Housewives," found herself hard up for money and
reluctantly agreed to don an evening gown and
extol the virtues of a Buick LaCrosse at a car
display. Amanda Bynes's character on the WB's
"What I Like About You" raved about Fruity
Pebbles and competed against a friend to be in
the next Herbal Essences commercial. And the
producers of "Bernie Mac" on Fox wove mentions
of Rolaids throughout an episode as they
unleashed the dyspeptic Mr. Mac to rant about
life's injustices and his stomach pains.
Network, advertising and production executives
say that this season, more and more brands will
venture outside the confines of 30-second ads.
They may have no choice: As technology and
clutter blunt the effectiveness and reach of the
commercial spots that have underpinned the
television business for nearly 50 years, the
various players are scrambling to adapt.
The networks, sensing a new revenue stream as
traditional advertising spending flattens out,
are actively pursuing these steroid-enhanced
product placement deals. Advertising companies -
from Omnicom to MediaVest to Carat Americas -
have started their own branded entertainment
divisions to solidify their relationships with
their corporate clients, as well as the cash
that comes with them. Newcomers like Madison
Road Entertainment have popped up to match the
desires of Hollywood and marketers and perhaps
create their own shows in the process. And
producers see in these more sophisticated plugs
a way to offset rising production costs.
Not everyone is thrilled with the trend. Some
creators of television shows worry that the
mercantile impulse could turn storytellers into
shills and keep more provocative fare off the
big networks. Last Tuesday in New York during
what is known as Advertising Week, television
writers protested outside a panel about branded
entertainment, demanding more say in any such
deals as well as a cut in the profits from them.
And the Federal Communications Commission has
turned a wary eye on a practice it sees as
little more than stealth advertising.
But many producers, network executives and
advertisers dismiss such criticisms as
overblown. "The fact is brands are part of our
lives and brands exist in these television
environments, so why not showcase them?" said
Ben Silverman, chief executive of Reveille,
whose shows include "The Office" as well as
reality shows like "Biggest Loser" on NBC and
"Nashville Star" on USA. "Otherwise, brands will
go spend their dollars on Google, and the F.C.C.
ain't going to be able to do anything."
IN some ways, this newfangled form of branded
entertainment harks back to the beginnings of
television. Half a century ago, ad agencies
often produced shows like "The Colgate Comedy
Hour" and "Texaco Star Theater," in which a
chorus line of dapper gas-station attendants
opened each show by singing the Texaco jingle
("Oh, we're the men of Texaco, we work from
Maine to Mexico") before introducing the host,
A combination of rising production costs and
quiz-show scandals pushed the sponsors out of
the show-making business by the late 1950's, and
the era of the 30-second ad began. But
advertisers' products found their way back into
the shows themselves as a cottage industry -
product placement firms - developed.
These businesses furnished the apartments,
filled the fridges and supplied the cars for
sitcoms and dramas. Corporations would barter
their wares to television as well as feature
films, hoping that the glamour of Hollywood
would rub off on their quotidian products. And
the studios were able to keep costs down and add
a little verisimilitude to the action.
Sometimes, serendipity would strike, and a brand
like Junior Mints would end up lodged in the
nation's collective consciousness. No advertiser
approached the creators of "Seinfeld" to suggest
a 1993 episode in which Kramer and Jerry watch
helplessly as a Junior Mint falls into the body
cavity of Elaine's former boyfriend during an
operation. The "Seinfeld" writers came up with
the idea, and the product placement firm, AIM
Productions, rushed to get clearance from the
company, hedging its bets by sending requests to
the owners of LifeSavers and M&M's, too, said
Patti Ganguzza, the company's president. No
money changed hands.
Then, about five years ago, the product
placement landscape changed, in large part
because of Mark Burnett and "Survivor." By
selling sponsorships to advertisers, Mr. Burnett
was able to finance much if not all of his show,
easing the way for a network - in this case, CBS
- to put it on the air without much financial
risk. And because success in television is
always accompanied by swarms of imitators, the
networks latched on to this low-cost programming
Despite the fervent wishes of many television
critics, reality shows - about everything from
C-list celebrities ("The Surreal Life") to
ballroom dancers ("Dancing With the Stars") to
backbiting businesspeople ("The Apprentice") -
still clog the broadcast and cable networks. And
they are shamelessly stuffed to bursting with
brand tie-ins; indeed, whole episodes can
revolve around a product.
During the 2004-2005 television season, more
than 100,000 product placements appeared on the
six broadcast networks, an increase of nearly 28
percent from the previous season, according to
Nielsen Media Research. And in 2004, the value
of overall TV product placements rose 46.4
percent, to $1.88 billion, according to the
research firm PQ Media.
More are on the way, particularly in scripted
shows. Leslie Moonves, co-president and co-chief
operating officer of Viacom and chairman of CBS,
has predicted in recent months that there will
be a "quantum leap" in the number of product
placements and that within one or two years,
nearly every show on network television will
have them. Last month, CBS digitally embedded
the logo of the Chevrolet Impala in the scenery
of five of its shows, including "CSI."
This headlong embrace, paradoxically, comes at a
time when the average household watches more
television than ever, according to a report
released on Thursday by Nielsen. Yet the
financial moorings of the television industry
have never been subject to such pressure.
With so many entertainment choices, audience
fragmentation continues apace, and advertisers
are none too pleased to be paying the same or
higher ad rates for shows that are losing
viewers. At the same time, technology has given
viewers a degree of control over their
television - and commercial - watching. Digital
video recorders may be in fewer than 10 million
households now, but marketers are already
preparing for the day when many more viewers are
likely to skip right past their 30-second ads.
Major marketers like Procter & Gamble and
Unilever have cut their television ad budgets
and put more into product placement. For the
networks and the studios and producers who
create the shows, that is ominous. "The
advertising model of 10 years ago is not
applicable today," said Bruce Rosenblum,
president of Warner Brothers Television Group,
which oversees both the WB and the television
"At the end of the day," he added, "if we are
unable to satisfy advertisers' appetites to
deliver messages in new ways to the viewer, then
we're destined to have a broken model."
No template exists for these more elaborate
product placement deals, according to interviews
with more than two dozen advertisers, network
executives, branded-entertainment principals and
producers. But in most cases, the advertisers
gain a say and, occasionally, veto power over
how the product is portrayed.
In return, an advertiser will end up buying more
ordinary 30-second ads than it did previously,
as well as paying a separate integration fee to
the network, which splits the money with the
studio. That bounty can rise into the millions
of dollars, said Mr. Silverman of Reveille. Or
it can help a network keep ad dollars that might
have gone to other shows or media.
Sometimes, instead of an integration fee,
advertisers will include the show in their
marketing efforts, such as mall promotions,
magazine ads and newspaper stuffers - much to
the networks' delight. "Network dollars are
tight. If I get a promotion, that's a big thing
for me," said Joe Davola, president of Tollin/Robbins
Television, which produces such shows as
"Inconceivable" on NBC as well as the WB's "What
I Like About You," "Smallville" and "One Tree
The challenges and contests in reality shows
readily lend themselves to brand integration,
executives said. Starving, thirsty islanders
will gobble and guzzle Doritos and Mountain Dew
after vanquishing their opponents in a
"Survivor" episode, and the viewer will usually
accept the products' presence.
But scripted shows are a trickier endeavor.
"When a marketer uses branded entertainment to
actually sell a product, the entire exercise
will fail," said Jak Severson, chief executive
of Madison Road Entertainment. "Audiences are so
sophisticated today the last thing they will do
is sit and be sold to during an entertainment
Jonathan Prince, creator of the recently
canceled "American Dreams," is now working with
Madison Road; he is one of the most aggressive
in weaving brands into his story lines. In the
three years when "American Dreams" was on the
air, he made Campbell's Soup, the Ford Mustang,
Kraft Singles and Oreos significant pieces of
the show. "I had seen too much bad product
placement, with someone driving a car, holding a
soda," he said. "It felt like a commercial - and
advertisers already do that well."
Mr. Prince added, "The ones that work are the
ones that grow out of character."
For the Campbell's Soup tie-in, which he
concocted with NBC, Mr. Prince already had an
idea to portray the deviousness of a character,
Patty, who is a junior high school student. So
he attached a continuing story line in which she
bribed schoolmates to send entries that she
ghostwrote to the annual Campbell's Soup
essay-writing contest, bolstering her chances to
win. Her actions had repercussions, and a lesson
was learned in this family-friendly series, set
in the 1960's.
"American Dreams" got more 30-second ads from
Campbell's and was featured in its print and
radio advertising as well as on 40 million
labels. Colleen Milway, global media director
for the Campbell Soup Company, said the story
line fit the squeaky-clean image the company
wants for the brand. And by eschewing the
obvious approach - characters chirping "Mmm, Mmm,
Mmm Good," for example - the integration
appeared to work. Three times the typical number
of people entered the essay-writing contest
after the episodes were shown.
"The needle we have to thread is to have a brand
integration that is effective enough to have
resonance, but - and it's a big but - subtle
enough so that it doesn't offend," said Mr.
Arbitrariness does not help. Last Thursday, on
the season premiere of "Will & Grace" on NBC,
the new Subway chicken parmigiana sandwich made
an unexpected appearance. The writers revealed
that Stan, the missing husband of Megan
Mullally's character, was alive, kept in hiding
by her maid and fed a steady diet of chicken
Measuring a product placement's effectiveness -
the domain of companies like iTVX and IAG
Research - is still an inexact science. But as
with all new fads in the media business, bad
money is likely to tumble alongside the good.
"I'm sure there will be integration that will
make people cringe," said Robert Riesenberg,
president and chief executive of Full Circle
Entertainment, a television production company
owned by Omnicom. "But over all," he added,
"content is going to be governed by taste, by
people's desire to engage with television."
The industry is ultimately self-regulating; turn
off the viewers, and there won't be a show left
to cram with dissonant brand integrations.
Producers and network executives also caution
that they need to police themselves, to refrain
from grabbing dollars willy-nilly. While ABC has
not instituted a quota - and the Sears
connection with "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition"
has been well received - executives there said
they would have a difficult time doing more than
one or two a week. "As soon you as you start
ramping up the volume, quality starts to
suffer," said Dan Longest, senior vice president
of integrated marketing at ABC.
ONE car manufacturer approached "The West Wing"
last season, with some specific story ideas to
weave one of its cars into the show's
storytelling. John Wells, the show's executive
producer, politely declined.
But when Mr. Wells's other NBC show, "E.R.,"
wanted the arrogant doctor played by Mekhi
Phifer to brag about his new car, the producers
went with a Chrysler 300C. "When we tried to do
it without mentioning a name, it sounded silly,"
said Mr. Wells. No money was involved; Chrysler
just loaned the car.
For Chrysler, that tacit approval by a character
in a scripted show validated its attempts to
portray the Chrysler 300 as a hot car. "That's
very valuable to us," said Jeff Bell, vice
president of Chrysler and Jeep.
The plug may not have matched the boost the
Pontiac Solstice received on an episode of "The
Apprentice" last season, which led to 1,000 cars
being presold in the 41 minutes after the
episode ended, according to Steve Tihanyi,
general director of marketing alliances and
entertainment at General Motors. But, Mr. Bell
said, "It's better than a salesman's
Producers like Mr. Wells have the clout to pick
and choose, and Dick Wolf can keep his three
"Law & Order" series free of product placement
if he wants. But some in the television industry
fret that those with less successful track
records or at smaller networks will not be able
to fend off aggressive marketers.
Also worrisome is the tendency of advertisers
who are creating brand integrations to gravitate
toward heartwarming shows like NBC's "Three
Wishes," in which the singer Amy Grant ladles
out assistance to those in need. "It's got to be
noncontroversial," said Mr. Riesenberg of Full
Circle, whose productions include "Bound for
Glory" on ESPN (with Mr. Silverman's Reveille);
the show follows the former football star Dick
Butkus as he tries to turn around a high school
Television shows that deal with provocative
subjects could find themselves at a financial
disadvantage in an environment where networks
and studios must rely increasingly on this new
source of revenue, Mr. Wells said. "I believe in
market forces, but I think the quality of
content will suffer," he said.
Mr. Prince, the "American Dreams" creator, said
that he had heard similar concerns from fellow
writers and producers, but that he did not have
much patience for them.
"People who pay the bills get to write notes,"
he said, but that does not mean a producer has
to consent to every brand integration idea. To
him, the advertisers are the saviors of scripted
television. " 'Desperate Housewives' doesn't
need a savior. 'Lost' doesn't need a savior," he
said. "It's the middling-rated, expensive,
quality shows that network people want to keep
on the air, but to them the model doesn't make
Branded integration schemes also face some other
foes, like Jonathan S. Adelstein, a commissioner
at the F.C.C. "Whether it's classic payola,
where a radio station gets a large plasma
television to play a certain song, or a
corporation pays $100,000 to get its product
mentioned on the air, both the station and the
network are required by law to disclose that,"
Mr. Adelstein said.
The networks do disclose promotional
considerations. But Mr. Adelstein says the
credits whip by so fast that the human eye
cannot read them, even with a DVR. "Is that full
and fair disclosure? I don't think so," he said.
"We need to make sure people are sure they're
being sold to."
For Mr. Davola of Tollin/Robbins, the benefits
of branded integration outweigh any hypothetical
downside. "If people get insulted, they can go
watch PBS or go rent an independent movie," he
said. "Seriously. This is the real world. I'm
not ruining television."
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