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Ad Nauseam: How far is too far?


Jennifer Wells

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

July 25, 2008

In Monday’s instalment of Canadian Idol, as contestants Theo Tams, Earl Stevenson et al. reprised the greatest hits of dead artists (No Woman No Cry; Light My Fire), viewers would not have been surprised to see the Subway logo prominently displayed on the water bottles in front of Sass Jordan and her fellow judges.

The Idol franchise has proved fertile ground for product integration, the paid-for embedding of advertising within the content of television programs.

In its latest ranking, Nielsen IAG, which measures “place-views,” or in-program product placement, put Disney World, Coca-Cola and Nokia at the top of the most-recalled in-program placements, all of them either appearing in, or being mentioned within, American Idol.

The Coke (or Subway) cups-in-front-of-the-judges strategy is so simple in its application, other brand marketers were bound to follow suit. Viewers tuning in to Fox5 News Live in Las Vegas this week might have noticed that co-anchors Monica Jackson and Jason Feinberg were accompanied by clear plastic cups of iced coffee - with straws - clearly stamped with the McDonald’s logo. Introducing an item on a horrific traffic accident the other day, Monica and Jason left their iced cafs untouched.

The Fox5 gambit is merely the latest example of the television industry’s deep accommodation of the incursion of advertising into content, as viewers have proved themselves to be inured to the old industry standard, the 30-second ad. PQ Media, a research firm based in Stamford, Conn., estimates that ad spending on product placements in all media in the U.S. market rose to approximately $2.9-billion (U.S.) last year. Of that, $2-billion went to television placements, a 40-per-cent increase over the year previous.

The Canadian market, while a fraction of the size, grew an estimated 27 per cent last year to $32-million (Canadian), with TV accounting for about $26-million of that.

Double-digit growth

“Brand marketers are always looking to integrate their product into programs,” says Leo Kivijarv, PQ’s vice-president for research. “There will be continued double-digit growth in the upcoming years because of that.”

The practice itself has become so embedded, Mr. Kivijarv notes, that networks and producers are working closely with media buyers to enhance what they can offer to advertisers. The objective is to have the product seamlessly but notably integrated into the script, and not “placed in the background with 27 other products,” he says.

In last week’s episode of Army Wives, which airs in the U.S. on the Lifetime network, the money shot was unquestionably the moment when Roxy commented on Betty’s purchase of a new car. She bent down to eyeball the car brand and for one filmic moment the viewer saw little beyond the logo: Mustang.

Back on the Idol set, viewers of this season’s Canadian version will notice a new twist on the tried-and-true advertising strategy: Telus, whose banner ads appear on the show inviting viewers to call in and vote, has launched a series of one-time-only video spots featuring an aspirational Idol contestant named Ron Ronn. He’s fictional, and designed to appear hapless and loveable, the quintessential underdog.

“The idea of product placement is where it started,” says Rose Sauquillo, creative director at Taxi Canada, Telus’s ad agency and Ron Ronn creator. But Taxi and Media Experts, the media buying agency that has Telus on its client roster, wanted to go a step further and create a completely unique concept.

“We wanted to make sure that we got close to the Idol brand,” says Richard Ivey, a senior vice-president at Media Experts.

How to do that?

Ms. Sauquillo notes that in creating the story of Ron Ronn, Telus is both attempting to tap into the connection viewers experience with the Idol contestants - “If you’re not hitting them in an emotional way you might as well not be running anything,” she says - as well as affording an opportunity to explain the product in question. In this instance, Telus smart phones.

“We wanted to make sure that people know that smart phones aren’t just for business,” says Ms. Sauquillo. “I think that’s the perception people have - stuffy business people who use it for their calendars.”

It’s all about engagement

To combat that image, Ron Ronn in Monday’s spot called upon his manager, Mueller, to “hit up Google for some gigs” on his Telus phone. The 30-second piece of integrated content aired immediately prior to a conventional Telus commercial (the one with the fish). “Hopefully,” says Media Experts’s Mr. Ivey, “people will see it and they’ll engage with the character and therefore engage with the smart phone and engage with Telus.”

In this way Telus has been able to not only piggyback on the narrative of the show but additionally demonstrate the product’s utility. A credit at the end of the spot directs viewers to a microsite - - that has been launched as part of the campaign.

Ms. Sauquillo says the Ron Ronn narrative was carefully constructed to ensure that Ron Ronn is understood to be fictional. “We did that knowingly because people can smell deception,” she says.

Whether viewers always and clearly understand when a product has been placed, and when a placement is paid for, is a question being examined by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

In June, the FCC issued a 60-day notice of inquiry, seeking comment on the product placement trend. FCC rules stipulate that identification of sponsorship of a commercial product is not required when the sponsorship appears to be “obvious.” Asks the FCC: “Are the existing rules effective in ensuring that the public is made aware of product placement and product integration in entertainment programming?”

The commission appears not to have considered that the long arm of advertisers could reach beyond entertainment and into news and information programming.

New lobbying efforts

On Tuesday, Commercial Alert, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., blasted off a letter to Meredith Corp., owners of Fox5 in Las Vegas. “Your decision to use news anchors to hawk McDonald’s coffee undermines your newscast and the integrity of your programming,” wrote Commercial Alert’s managing director Robert Weissman, urging the station to end the promotional arrangement and remove those cups.

Commercial Alert has long lobbied the FCC to tighten its rules to demand product placement disclosure concurrent with product integration, as opposed to the end-of-show credits that are now common.

And Canada? A spokesperson for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says the commission has no rules governing product placement beyond a decision taken last year to not include such placements when tallying total ad time.

The point is all but moot, given the decision to eliminate restrictions on ad time as of September, 2009.






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