Firm Nielsen Tallying Product Placement Ads
Los Angeles Times
July 21, 2008
Firms are vying to provide the information to
advertisers who want to keep tabs on where competitors'
products are popping up in TV shows.
SHELTON, CONN.—-- On the fourth floor of an office
building in this green Connecticut town, Sarah Martin
goes to work every day as a television watcher.
She doesn’t mind watching “Ellen” and “Lost.” She hates
the days she has to sit through “American Chopper.”
Unfortunately, she can’t fast-forward.
Martin’s job is to count when brand names such as
Coca-Cola or Cadillac or Yamaha appear in TV shows—on a
soda can, whizzing past in a street scene, flashing on a
billboard in the background, anywhere within the
camera’s range. She works for research firm Nielsen,
which provides the information to advertisers who want
to keep tabs on where competitors’ products are popping
up in TV shows.
They are popping up quite a bit these days: Martin said
when she started her job a year and a half ago, she’d
count an average of 10 brands in a prime-time network
show. Now, it’s closer to 50. Viewers of the logo-laden
“American Chopper” on Discovery Channel might be exposed
to brands as many as 1,000 times per show.
“I used to watch TV all the time,” she said. “Now I go
home and do other things,” such as reading books.
Martin is part of a small army of people employed by
research firms and advertisers to track product
placement, one of the fastest-growing segments of the
advertising industry. Advertisers spent $2.9 billion in
2007 to place their products in TV shows and movies, up
33.7% from the year before, according to media research
firm PQ Media. This year spending is projected to hit
$3.6 billion, not including “barter” arrangements—in
which a company gives away products to be used in shows,
rather than paying for them to be placed there.
Firms for a long time have been measuring the frequency
of traditional print and broadcast advertising. As a
result, advertisers know who is spending what, and
But product placement has traditionally been a back-door
industry, arranged by prop masters on TV shows and
movies rather than by professional agencies. This has
made it much more difficult to monitor who is placing
products, and how often and where they appear.
Some, such as the Federal Communications Commission, are
concerned that it is too difficult to discern when
product placements occur. Last month, the FCC said it
would consider new rules to better inform viewers when
brands appear on shows in exchange for money. Such
disclosures currently run during the credits, but the
agency plans to examine whether product placement
notices should be written in bigger print and displayed
for a longer period.
Advertisers, on the other hand, are eager to know
whether their money to plug their products is being well
spent. Did viewers notice that the car the villain was
driving was an Audi? Did a character holding a box of
Wheaties really make people want to buy it? Did it make
a difference how many times cups of Coca-Cola appeared
on “American Idol”?
Several companies are now vying to become the place
where advertisers look for those answers.
In April, Nielsen spent $225 million to acquire IAG
Research, one of the biggest companies to measure the
effectiveness of advertising and product placement.
Nielsen is in the process of figuring out ways to
combine parts of IAG with Nielsen Product Placement
Service, the division that employs Martin and about 15
other “coders” to count when products appear in shows.
IAG says that when combined with Nielsen, it will
provide the first comprehensive service for tracking
The merger comes at a time when the Internet has upended
the business of measuring advertising through its
technical ability to count when viewers see an ad and
respond to it. Advertisers now expect a high degree of
specificity in knowing the effectiveness of their ads.
That has put pressure on traditional forms of old
media—such as TV—to improve their ability to measure how
consumers respond to advertising, including product
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t sell it,” said Alan
Wurtzel, president of research and media development at
NBC Universal, which uses data from IAG to show
advertisers whether consumers respond to their
IAG comes up with its product placement ratings by
asking 2.5 million people to fill out surveys online
after watching their favorite shows, said co-Chief
Executive Alan Gould. The surveys ask whether viewers
remember the brand, think more positively about it or
want to purchase it, and whether the placement disrupted
their viewing experience. Gould says clients have
included Toyota, Ford, Verizon and American Express.
“The marketplace for branded entertainment is going to
continue to grow,” he said. “And to fuel that
marketplace, buyers and sellers will need an independent
Others are trying different approaches to measure the
effectiveness of brand placement. Frank Zazza, the
product promoter who was responsible for promoting the
placing of Reese’s Pieces in “E.T.” and putting Junior
Mints in Cosmo Kramer’s hands in “Seinfeld,” now runs a
firm called ITVX that seeks to measure viewer recall of
His system takes into account as many as 60 different
factors, Zazza said, such as whether a product appears
in the foreground or background, whether a viewer is
aware that a brand is on screen, and whether the show’s
commercials are coordinated with the product placements.
As advertisers and producers become more sophisticated
at seeding products into programming, “it becomes more
complicated to measure,” he said.
Most advertising and media buying agencies have their
own ways to measure the success of product placements,
but few are willing to discuss their methodology.
That means it might take a long time for companies to
adopt standards set by Nielsen—or by anyone else, for
that matter. If advertisers adopt a standard of
measurement for product placement, then they would lose
their ability to negotiate what they pay, said Devery
Holmes, president of product placement firm NMA
Entertainment & Marketing.
“Even if a reasonable methodology were developed by a
creditable company like Nielsen,” she said, “it is very
likely that brand media buyers would not endorse it
publicly.” That’s because a single measurement standard
could lead to set pricing, which would make it hard for
advertisers to negotiate rates.
Still, Nielsen is determined to establish its place in
product placement measurement just as it holds sway in
TV ratings. “If we do our jobs correctly, we will become
the dominant way in which the industry measures product
placement,” Gould said. He pointed out that if
advertisers are the only ones measuring brands in shows,
“it would be the people creating the stuff also grading
The grind of counting all those products and brands
isn’t about to let up, regardless of whether Nielsen
establishes itself as the big gorilla in the business.
Technological advances aside, it’s still a job that can
be done only by humans.
“I didn’t wear glasses before I started here,” said
Lauren Goerig, 24, a coder who works in Nielsen’s
On her desk, crowded with Post-it notes and cans of Red
Bull, a computer was playing the CBS drama “Criminal
Minds.” She quickly tapped on the keyboard when a poster
for the Museum of Natural History flashed on the screen.
A couple of scenes later, she’s clicking again when
Special Agent Emily Prentiss says to her colleague,
Derek Morgan, “Remember the time when we got on board
and they hadn’t chilled the Cristal?,” catching a
reference to the trendy champagne.
The job has a way of rubbing off even in her off-work
“When I watch shows at home, I’ll say, ‘He’s driving a
GMC truck,’ “ she said. “My boyfriend just shakes his