Making the brand a TV star

The personal video recorder's potentially negative impact on the 30-second TV spot has recently led many advertisers to take a closer look at product placement in television programming as a would-be alternative. Meanwhile, others are taking the notion a step further, toward 'integrated advertising' - whereby a product is incorporated into part of a plot - or even show ownership, giving advertisers control over the creative process.
Until recently, content providers have had a fairly negative reaction to such involvement, but the current economic climate is causing network brass to become much more receptive.

The personal video recorder’s potentially negative impact on the 30-second TV spot has recently led many advertisers to take a closer look at product placement in television programming as a would-be alternative. Meanwhile, others are taking the notion a step further, toward ‘integrated advertising’ – whereby a product is incorporated into part of a plot – or even show ownership, giving advertisers control over the creative process.

Until recently, content providers have had a fairly negative reaction to such involvement, but the current economic climate is causing network brass to become much more receptive.

These days, producing primetime programming has become a tougher game than ever with U.S. execs looking to slash production/development costs by up to 40%, and the likes of Variety saying it ‘has become an inherently bad business.’ Fox Broadcasting is reporting cutbacks on the production of new programming, and studios such as Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TV division are also backing off the prime-time production business.

This situation is enabling marketers to take a more proactive role.

Phil Hart, president of MMI, a 16-year-old Toronto-based product placement firm that counts Molson Canadian, BMW and Federal Express as clients, says there has been more focus on the use of the television series as an ad medium lately.

He sees an opportunity for growth, particularly since, according to U.K.-based Informa Media Group, there will be nearly 500 million households worldwide with PVRs by 2010. ‘As things change for the consumer, advertisers will start rethinking how to attract an audience through more creative ways.’

The trend is being pushed along further by PDI, a two-year-old technology that allows the virtual placement of items or billboards onscreen during post-production, enticing networks and advertisers alike, since it offers more flexibility than a pre-production deal.

At the end of October, Lawrenceville, N.J.-based Princeton Video Image, which patented the technology, was asked to insert Samsung and other brands into programming on New York-based Hallmark Channel’s Latin American station.

In Canada, CanWest Global has exclusive rights to the technology, which it implemented during the Super Bowl last January, when it replaced American billboards with Canadian ones. But, for the most part, the media company has refrained from using virtual product placement in TV series. ‘You need to get the distributor to agree to it, especially for American shows, and they’re not at a point where they’re ready to,’ says Scott MacLeod, director of promotions for Toronto-based Global Specialty Services.

But current economic conditions have caused networks to be open to tactics beyond even regular product placement, like integrating brands into plots or creating sponsored programs.

‘Now you’re finding that entertainment content is being created with [product integration] in mind, and that there are easier solutions for marketers to buy,’ says Bruce Philp, partner at Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering of Toronto, who thinks it’s almost banal to go for pure product placement these days. ‘It’s probably equivalent to having a logo on a billboard before the TV show begins. It doesn’t say much.’ He believes that if a brand is somehow wrapped into a script, like in the Friends episode that focused on Pottery Barn, the message is stronger.

Corus Entertainment, Toronto, is one broadcaster that seems to get the idea. Just last year, it created Sponsorship Plus, an entirely separate division to aid marketers interested in such tactics. Along with product placement, it serves up ‘product interaction,’ whereby an item is incorporated into a plot line, and ‘advertorial,’ where content is built around a brand.

For instance, General Mills opted for product integration in a kids’ game show called Uh-Oh!. Participants are asked to perform various tasks, one of which includes jumping on oversized Fruit Gushers causing the inner goo to squirt out. The General Mills snack fits because ‘it’s a fun product, with a sensory experience,’ says Jerry Mackrell, director of sales for children’s television at Corus.

On the advertorial side there’s Fizz on the Bizz, a new 60-second segment running within YTV music program Chart Attack!, also new this fall. It begins with a five-second animated opening shot against the backdrop of a Pepsi machine. ‘That’s creating editorial with a hefty advertiser tie-in,’ says Mackrell, who points out Sponsorship Plus was born from demand. ‘We started off on an ad hoc basis, but we found that the more we did, the more appetite there was from advertisers.’

But does product integration work? The makers of Aqua Java, a brand of caffeinated water and a client of the L.A.-based product placement firm Feature This, would argue it does. The strange concoction was featured on The Drew Carey Show, in a scene where Drew’s boss pours it into the water cooler. Drew catches him in the act, and suddenly realizes why he had enough energy to jog home after work the previous day. The response was significant, with Aqua Java receiving 30,000 emails the very next day.

Meanwhile, New York-based advertising agency network Omnicom, which recently snapped up entertainment marketing firm Davie-Brown, adding to agencies BBDO Worldwide, DDB Worldwide, and TBWA Worldwide, seems poised to take product placement to its highest level: show ownership. The firm has already financed several TV specials, like an upcoming J-Lo event, which will be advertised by two of its clients, McDonald’s and Visa.

Still, with the TV business aggressively pursuing any new income, expect garden variety product placement to be on the rise as well. After all, what could be cooler than wearing the same ass-kicking jeans as Buffy? It not only lures potential customers, but also fortifies the brand image for current fans. Explains Jay May, president of Feature This: ‘They’ve reinforced that you’ve made the right choice.’

While May, who was a propmaster for 17 years, sees product placement becoming the ad of choice for iTV – the commercial would be replaced by an icon enabling you to purchase Buffy’s jeans – he believes there are risks when advertisers fork over cash to have a character flag their brand. ‘I feel if it’s the right fit, it should work for everybody,’ he says, warning there’s a danger in going too far. ‘When it’s blatant, you insult the audience, the product and the show. It’s not a time to stop and sell things.’

MMI’s Hart has a similar philosophy: he believes that when money changes hands, it shouldn’t be too obvious. On the other hand, he says, ‘when a character pulls a Pepsi out of a fridge and drinks it, that’s natural.’ For an average $25,000 annual retainer, Hart will work with studios to make sure the brand incorporation is acceptable to viewers.

One of his clients, BMW, has been featured in Canadian shows like Riverdale, Traders and more recently Cold Squad. ‘It’s difficult to monitor sales because there are so many factors,’ says Bronya Cuddy, the automaker’s Whitby, Ont.-based corporate communications specialist. ‘But it allows people to see the cars in a natural environment, and it also reinforces the brand message.’

Nonetheless, marketers should guard against overexposure, warns Philp. ‘Consumers are pretty brilliant and if they see a product over and over again on TV, it becomes an instant cliché and loses any magic you meant to give it.’

Pundits say the product placement backlash potential is only multiplied when it comes to show ownership, where advertisers could acquire too much control over the creative process, thereby diluting the entertainment product.

While show ownership isn’t a novel idea – after all, soap operas were so named in the 1950s because they were produced by Procter & Gamble – Philp cautions that today’s television viewer is far more savvy. ‘The only way to go about it is to either make it clear – here’s the advertising part and here’s the entertainment – or be terrifically deft about the way you do advertising … But it’s definitely a risky way to go.’

Plus, producing a hit TV series is the Holy Grail, even for the experts. It ain’t easy, says Hart. ‘If advertisers think they can start producing TV shows on a regular basis, they will learn a big lesson on what the hell it’s all about,’ he says. ‘Especially when they realize it’s a business that has a success rate of 20%.’