Advertisers Up The Ante As Products
Become TV Plots
Products no longer simply appear in shows
– they're becoming important parts of the plot, too.
The Christian Science Monitor
November 3, 2008
Los Angeles - Forget "product placement" – that's so
20th century. Even "product integration" is passé.
Advertisers these days want to do far more than just
place BMWs, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and other luxury items
within reach of favorite TV and movie characters. They
want to create entire worlds of consumption. For
•CW Television Network's "Gossip Girl" features
characters whose lifestyles are driven by the Prada bags
they want and the La Perla lingerie the highly
sexualized characters need.
•Actresses in "Roommates," a MySpace TV Web series, use
their characters' online profiles to chat with fans and
dish out information about their clothing and other
products as well as advice on where to buy them.
These are the heady days of "brand integration" and
"immersive" commercial environments.
"We are in an increasingly commercialized culture," says
David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, who points out
that as consumers develop more tools to screen out
traditional ads, such as 30-second TV spots, advertisers
must get more subtle and innovative. The result? "Less
story and more push to consume," he says.
This also leads to "more potential for manipulation,"
says David Howard, a marketing professor at Cox School
of Business at Southern Methodist University.
The trend is expected to grow. Global ad dollars spent
on product placement of all kinds will expand from $3
billion in 2006 to $5.6 billion by 2010, according to PQ
Media. A July poll in the trade magazine Ad Age found
that 60 percent of TV and movie audiences say they are
influenced by product placements.
While audiences are migrating to many new-media gadgets
and outlets, such as iPods, video games, and even the
displays on gas pumps, advertisers still depend on the
content and large audiences that TV delivers.
"Television is sooo not dead," says Dennis Ryan, chief
creative officer at Element 79, a Chicago-based ad
agency. All that is going on, he says, "is a
diversification of screens."
In the summer, for example, Mr. Ryan's firm created
"Ball Girl," a video showing a girl in the audience
leaping to her feet to make a spectacular catch at a
minor-league baseball game. As she returned to her seat,
the camera casually spied a Gatorade bottle next to her.
There was no tag line for the online version, which used
a news footage style and easily passed as an actual
event. After allowing the clip to generate some online
buzz, adds Ryan, the firm moved it to television, where
it picked up a Gatorade tag line, identifying it as a
But this subtle form of messaging can occasionally
produce troublesome results, Ryan adds.
He points to a campaign from Cardo Systems, a
manufacturer of wireless headsets, that ran online this
past summer. The firm produced a trio of videos made to
appear homemade, in the style of YouTube, depicting
cellphone signals powerful enough to pop corn kernels.
The videos ignited a flurry of news coverage about the
topic of possible brain damage from mobile-phone
signals. The subtle message: Buy one of Cardo systems'
headsets and keep your head a safe distance from those
scary cellphone transmissions.
The blurring of story and selling concerns many media
watchdogs, not to mention parents and educators.
"This selling of a consumer lifestyle can be very
detrimental to the development of a healthy sense of
self and the kind of values a society needs," says Naomi
Johnson, assistant professor of communication studies at
Longwood University in Farmville, Va. She points to the
romance novels that inspired "Gossip Girl" and says that
a significant shift from internal values, such as true
love and romance, to possessions and shopping is
The issues of manipulation and deception lie at the
heart of many critics' concerns. Some, such as Professor
Howard, say that while today's consumers are far savvier
than previous generations, they aren't infallible and
dislike being tricked or manipulated.
The most successful relationship advertisers can strike
with consumers is the most overt, says Richard
Notarianni, executive creative director of media for
Euro RSCG, a New York ad agency.
He points to such cheeky moments as Tina Fey's smiling
turn directly into the camera on her comedy, "30 Rock."
In the middle of a scene, after she and costar Alec
Baldwin discuss the value of Verizon cellphones, she
makes an aside directly to the audience (and presumably,
Verizon): "Can we have our money now?"
"Consumers will engage when they feel they are being
treated honestly," Mr. Notarianni says.
A healthy cynicism about media messages is the best tool
against manipulation, say most observers. Vigilance is
doubly important when dealing with underage audiences,
Ms. Johnson adds.
However, unlike some, she sees value in the shows as a
teaching tool about what's important. After all, she
says, "you don't come out of the womb asking for a Louis
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