Taking Product Placement Another Step

American Idol judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell onstage during the taping of Idol. i i

Proudly sponsored by: Marketers know you'll consciously notice the (Cool! Refreshing! Thirst-quenching!) cups of Coke sitting in front of American Idol judges. And they hope that you'll remember what Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell's drink of choice is next time you're at the vending machine. Kevin Winter/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Kevin Winter/Getty Images
American Idol judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell onstage during the taping of Idol.

Proudly sponsored by: Marketers know you'll consciously notice the (Cool! Refreshing! Thirst-quenching!) cups of Coke sitting in front of American Idol judges. And they hope that you'll remember what Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell's drink of choice is next time you're at the vending machine.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Christian Slater in the driver's seat with a gun i i

Driven by commerce: Christian Slater's darker side locks and loads in his signature Chevy. Product-integration strategies in scripted programs like NBC's new drama My Own Worst Enemy are subtler, part of an effort to tie products to character and plot. NBC hide caption

itoggle caption NBC
Christian Slater in the driver's seat with a gun

Driven by commerce: Christian Slater's darker side locks and loads in his signature Chevy. Product-integration strategies in scripted programs like NBC's new drama My Own Worst Enemy are subtler, part of an effort to tie products to character and plot.

NBC

Undercover Advertising

In 2007, Neda Ulaby interviewed Walter Carl, a professor at Northeastern University, who analyzed recorded phone conversations between students. Carl found that 15 to 20 percent of conversations included a reference to a brand product or service. Hear that story:

When you see giant Coke cups sitting at the fingertips of American Idol judges, that's not just product placement. That's full-fledged product integration — when a brand becomes inextricably identified with the content of a show.

Product integration is common practice on reality television. You can't miss Target in Oprah's Big Give. Top Chef aspirants extol the virtues of Glad products. And all of us who are fans of Project Runway are accustomed to fidgeting through segments during which contestants cobble together couture from parts of Saturn cars (which happens to be the same brand awarded to the winner).

Scripted television is a little different. When the besuited advertising creatives of Mad Men debate their new Heineken campaign, or when Christian Slater hops behind the wheel of a particular Chevy to indicate which of his character's personalites is in play on the new show My Own Worst Enemy, you're not really supposed to notice.

Instead, the company's marketers hope you've made a subtle association between shows you like and their products ... and that might inform your behavior the next time you're thirsting for a beer or contemplating a new ride.

That's why network executives use words such as "natural" and "organic" when they talk about product integration and scripted TV — adjectives more often associated with high-end environmentally friendly groceries. They don't want it to be so blatantly obvious that it overwhelms the programming. But they don't want you to miss it, either.

That's why when a company sponsors a show, you'll often see their products in the actual program, commercials for the products during the break, and sometimes, what are called "podbusters" — commercial hybrids that feature the show's characters that appear between the show and commercials, and are designed to keep you watching rather than flipping or fast forwarding.

The TiVo is to thank for a new, dramatic increase in product integration. Now shows have built-in commercials that not only can't be skipped, but will find new life on DVD. Marketers and networks are working closely together to entice viewers with online games, contests, polls, texts, web extras and social networks. Ben Silverman, NBC's co-chair of entertainment, is just one television executive who has described product integration as a cornerstone of his programming strategy.

Not everyone is thrilled about this new age of product integration. Robert Weissman directs a watchdog group called Commercial Alert. He says product integration is deceptive advertising, plain and simple.

"For younger kids, it's not even clear what the distinction is between ads and regular programming," Weissman says. "When the ads are integrated into a program in such a way that a regular adult can't figure it out, there's no way for children to understand."

Most of us like to think that we're savvy enough to realize when someone is trying to sell us something. Still, I've got to admit that in the course of reporting this story, I ran across a few instances of product integration that I hadn't even registered in shows I regularly watch.

NBC's The Office is rife with product integration. True, it doesn't get much more "natural" or "organic" than Michael taking clients to Chili's, or Dwight defecting to Staples.

Verisimilitude may be the name of the game, but Commercial Alert's Weissman thinks shows need to do a better job of disclosing product integration. His solution — which is also advocated by the Writer's Guild of America West — is to require shows to insert a crawl to let us know when we're seeing integrated products. This idea may not delight TV viewers already sick of the parade of crawls, banners and pop-ups already crowding the lower third of their screens.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.