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Product placements creep into children's entertainment

February 28, 2006

More and more savvy media users have gadgets that enable them to zap past traditional 30-second TV spots. And they're hip to product placements, in which advertisers pay to get their brands in movies, songs and TV shows.

So now, big advertisers like Volkswagen and Sprint, desperate to reach these retreating audiences, are sneaking in ad pitches by getting their products in places people might not expect, such as comedy shows and children's cartoons.

"Advertisers are trying to find ways of reaching potential customers in more clever, effective ways that don't cost too much," said Bill Keep, marketing professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

According to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn., research firm, product placements in 2004 were valued at $3.46 billion.

Now that the product placement floodgates have opened, advertisers are looking at other areas that carry more risks.

For instance, advertisers used to consider animated films for kids off limits because of the clamor watchdog groups might raise about marketing to children, but "Curious George," an animated movie for very young children, contains product placements for Volkswagen and Dole.

In one scene of the movie, based on stories first published in 1941, the curious monkey George is seen relaxing amid broken crates of Dole produce, with the produce spilling out. His guardian, The Man in the Yellow Hat, drives a Volkswagen.

(Ironically, H.A. and Margret Rey, the married couple who wrote and illustrated the books, fled Europe in 1940 to escape Nazi rule; Adolf Hitler laid the groundwork for the Volkswagen by seeking out designs for an affordable passenger car for the masses.)

Joel Epstein, a spokesman for Volkswagen, said the car was used in the film as part of a long-term agreement with NBC Universal Pictures. The studio also put the vehicles in "King Kong" and "Herbie: Fully Loaded."

Just as kids' movies were off limits, companies also once shied away from product placements in comedy shows, because of the risks associated with connecting a brand with edgy humor. Toyota recently used product placements in Fox's "MADtv" comedy-variety show to promote the Yaris sedan and hatchback that go on sale in May.

As part of the deal, the series will have five skits one each month through May called "Men About Town." They'll highlight the amusing experiences of two men traveling around Los Angeles in the car.

The first sketch aired Jan. 28 and featured one man teaching another how to drive the car; the second skit, which aired on Feb. 18, revolved around the men driving the car and trying to woo women by fibbing.

"We wanted to make sure the comedy wasn't coming from us, but around us," said Rob Donnell, president of Brand Arc, an entertainment agency in Santa Monica, Calif., that represents Toyota. "We didn't want them to disparage us, and they assured us they wouldn't. This was a fresh way to introduce the new car."

Madison Road Entertainment in Los Angeles, a branded entertainment company that has brokered product placement deals for TV shows such as "America's Next Top Model" and "Entertainment Tonight," set "MADtv" up with Toyota.

The company brokered a similar deal with Sprint last year, in which comedians imitated people such as President Bush, Connie Chung and Britney Spears making Sprint ringtones.

"Our philosophy is if the brand doesn't make the show better, the brand doesn't make the show," said Jack Severson, Madison's chief executive. "People must not notice the integration, but they must remember it. That's the test."

A growing number of advertisers are using technology that makes their products appear in places they weren't before.

It's called digital product integration, and it's the new frontier for paid product placements. Advertisers such as Chevrolet and Dannon yogurt are among the marketers using technology to digitally insert their products into scenes of popular prime-time TV episodes after the episode has been filmed.

Digital product integrations seek to be subtle by making the advertiser's product relevant to what's going on in the episode, sneaking a brand name or ad message in while people are watching their favorite show.

For instance, when Kellogg wanted to get its products into a TV show, Marathon Ventures, a Wakarusa, Ind.-based marketing firm that specializes in such digital product integration, found a scene in which stars of "Yes, Dear" were drinking wine and eating cheese and fruit in which to insert a highly visible box of its Club crackers on the coffee table.

"Digital brand integration is part of the evolution of product placement. It's simply another tool marketers use to get products integrated into shows," said Marathon founder and president David Brenner. "If you can put it in a package, we can put it in a show."

Not everyone is a fan of product placement, digital or otherwise. Commercial Alert, a consumer watchdog group, has lobbied Congress for stronger oversight of product placements.

"TV networks and stations regularly send programs into American living rooms that are packed with product placements and other veiled commercial pitches," Executive Director Gary Ruskin wrote in a 2003 letter to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission. "But they pretend that these are just ordinary programming rather than paid ads. This is an affront to basic honesty."

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