Ad Nauseam: How far is
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
“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
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,”
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
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
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 - telus.ronronn.com -
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
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
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.