IS KIEFER SUTHERLAND TRYING TO SELL YOU SOMETHING?
On many hit shows, the line between story and commercial has vanished. How embedded ads are changing what—and how—we watch.
IF THERE’S ONE TV character you want on your side in the event of a national security threat, it’s Jack Bauer, chief terrorist thwarter on the hit Fox series 24. Played with cool efficiency by Canadian Kiefer Sutherland, Bauer is the kind of guy who can crack computer codes, infiltrate criminal rings and avert nuclear devastation faster than most people can make a sandwich. By any definition, he’s an all-American hero. Naturally, he drives a Ford.
That's because, after the first season of 24 emerged as a sleeper hit, the Ford Motor Co. signed a multi-million-dollar advertising deal with Fox-the most far-reaching of its kind at the time-to secure a piece ofBauer's cred for its brand. For two years, Ford sponsored the show's commercial-free season premieres, and in season three
it bracketed the first episode with long-format, 24-themed ads. More importantly, the automaker “embedded” its vehicles into the action of the show, which is why Bauer does some of his best crime-fighting in souped-up Excursions and Expeditions.
“It’s tastefully done so it’s really not an issue for me,” says Sutherland, who also serves as an executive producer. “And it helps fund the show since we don’t have to buy the cars.” There have been reports of the odd creative conflict—like the time Ford proposed that Bauer cruise around L.A. in its new F-150 truck, which producers felt wasn’t realistic for a government agent. (They settled for a “guest-starring” role for the F-150 as “a hazardous-materials vehicle.”) But for the most part, relations have been affable. “Everything
they’ve asked us to do has been pretty natural,” says Jon Cassar, another executive producer. Ford only enforces one hard rule: no bad guys driving Fords.
In some ways, Ford’s arrangement with 24 seems old hat. Product placement has been around in television since the ’40s, when advertisers bought entire time slots for branded shows like The Texaco Star Theater. More recently, we’ve become accustomed to seeing familiar brands littered throughout TV families’ kitchens and living rooms to add realism to the set. But increasingly, embedded advertising—or “product integration”— is becoming fundamental to how TV programs are conceived and produced. Corporations strike deals to have their brands built into the storylines of hit shows in order to piggyback on the emotional connections audiences have forged with the characters. A recent episode of ABC’s Desperate Housewives, for instance, involved a lead character taking a job as a spokesmodel for Buick, a major show advertiser. Similarly, an upcoming episode of the CTV drama The Eleventh Hour will feature Nicorettes woven into a story about a character trying to quit smoking. For advertisers, this is simply one way of combatting unprecedented audience fragmentation and new technologies that allow people to zap through commercials. But for viewers, it’s becoming increasingly tough to decipher when a Ford is just a Ford.
The trend is just heating up. By late 2004, embedded advertising emerged as one of the fastest-growing segments of the ad market.
In a recent interview, CBS chairman Les Moonves predicted that within three or four TV seasons, up to 75 per cent of all scripted, prime-time network shows will star products or services paid for by advertisers.
As a result, the branded entertainment industry, which barely existed a few years ago, is booming. Coke, by far the most often placed brand, has pledged to plow a big chunk of its marketing budget into integration deals. Last month, Ford set up its own Hollywood “talent agency”—a showroom where TV reps can browse new models for possible featured roles. In Canada, ad industry giants like Quebec City’s Cossette Communication Group and Taxi Advertising & Design in Toronto are setting up brandedentertainment affiliates to compete with the specialty firms that have so far dominated the deal-making. All of this has raised a predictable flurry of ethical concerns among media watchdog groups on both sides of the border. “It’s a whole cockamamie Wild West
right now,” says Frank Zazza, CEO of iTVx, a company that tracks the effectiveness of embedded ads. “This is like the dot-com boom of the late ’90s. The line between advertising and entertainment hasn’t vanished yet, but it’s certainly going that way.”
TRADITIONALLY, the TV industry has relied on a tacit understanding with viewers: we agree to endure commercial breaks and, in exchange, they deliver our favourite shows virtually for free. Today’s TV viewer, however, is a different breed—media-sawy, impatient, and easily antagonized by a hard sell. “Consumers are really putting up a wall,” says Luc Cormier of Cossette. “They’re filtering out as much advertising as they can unless it’s really relevant to them.”
Empowered to customize what we watch by new technologies—personal video recorders, Internet, gazillion-channel satellite and digital-cable feeds, DVDs, video on demand— we’re increasingly refusing to abide com-
mercial interruptions and demanding a choice in when, where and how much advertising we’re going to absorb. Studies show that people with PVRs like TiVo use them to skip 92 per cent of ads. Based on the rapid rates of the technology’s adoption, that means by the end of this year viewers will be fast-forwarding past US$6.6-billion worth of commercials in the U.S. alone.
So forward-thinking advertisers are scrambling to make themselves unzappable by inserting their brands right into show plots. “With traditional advertising, your ad runs for only as long as you’ve paid for it to,” points out Nancie Tear, creative director of PropStar, a Vancouver brand-placement firm. The new model requires advertisers to make a one-time investment—but their messages have the potential to be seen over and over, thanks to syndication and DVDs. In some cases, companies are taking the idea of branded entertainment a step further by creating programs custom-made to reinforce the marketing pitch. This year, for example, Quebec’s TVA will air the third season of the reality show Ma Maison ROÑA, about homeowners who execute dream renovations using products purchased at the Canadian home improvement chain. Viewers don’t seem to mind the obvious tie-in: Ma Maison’s last season drew an impressive million weekly viewers in French Canada.
The key to making such partnerships work, especially in scripted shows, is to keep the embedded ads believable and seamless. Many in the industry hold up Seinfeld, with its classic Pez, Snapple, Snickers and Junior Mints episodes, as the epitome of smooth integration. There’s a critical difference, however, between that show’s practice and what happens today: Seinfeld product appearances were all unpaid; the writers simply selected brands to fit their story ideas. “Those episodes were built by Jerry Seinfeld himself,” says Jarrod Moses, head of New York branded-entertainment firm Alliance. “They were all part of creating some fun in the show. The benefits to those brands were incredible, but that was never premeditated.” In a show that frequently turned on a character’s obsession with a product or experience, such specific brand references made sense. This kind of
PRODUCT PLACEMENT BEYOND TV
COURTESY OF NIKE
MUSICALS: Brands over Broadway. U.S. advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy is currently completing the financing on a multimillion-dollar basketball-themed musical called Ball, which will feature Nike products, the show’s sponsor.
MUSIC: Unbeknownst to many of her fans, Celine Dion’s recent air-travel-themed single, You and I Were Meant to Fly, was actually drummed up (and co-written) by the CEO of Montreal ad agency Marketel, as part of a campaign to promote the relaunch of Marketel client, Air Canada. To further entrench the connection, Air Canada planes are featured in the song’s video, taxiing slowly past as Dion belts her heart out in an airline hangar.
CELLPHONES: Last month, Vodaphone and Fox announced a collaboration on the first ever dramatic series designed specifically to play on mobile devices. The cobranded show, a spinoff of Fox’s 24, will consist of one-minute episodes, called “mobisodes,” custom-made for viewing on tiny cellphone screens.
FILM: Last year, the Pontiac GTO starred opposite Dennis Hopper in a TV movie coproduced by General Motors called The Last Ride. An upcoming animated children’s
feature called Foodfight!goes even further: it has been designed from the ground up as a vehicle for brands. Set for release later this year, the film is about a motley crew of product mascots-including Mr. Pringle, Mrs. Butterworth and Twinkie the Kid — who come alive in a supermarket late one night and have to defend the store from the villainous Brand X.
BOOKS: Last summer, popular British chicklit author Carole Matthews struck a deal with
Ford to integrate its Fiesta compact into her latest effort, TheSweetest Taboo, about a free-wheel in' single woman. Matthews is fol lowing in the foot steps of Fay Weldon, another best-sell ing British author,
who, in 2001, was paid to write a novel fea turing Bulgari jewellery, appropriately titled The Bukiari Connection.
VIDEO GAMES: McDonald’s made a deal with game-maker Electronic Arts to have its brand integrated into The Sims Online. Players are invited to build their own McDonald’s outlets where their Sims characters make virtual profits on the sales. BLOGS: The next frontier for branded entertainment? Weblogs. In late 2004, Marqui, a Vancouver-based communications firm, introduced its Blogosphere Program, through which it recruits influential bloggers who commit to mentioning Marqui’s clients on their sites in exchange for $800 a month. So far, 15 have signed up.
organic integration, says Zazza, would be “worth tens of millions today.”
But the dynamic has changed. As advertisers invest more into programs, they expect greater control over the content. “We absolutely expect to have input,” says Gary Elliott, Hewlett-Packard’s vice-president of brand marketing. “We have to look at the scripts. We have an agency that understands how our products are going to be treated and how we’d be viewed within the production.” Naturally, such deals place constraints on the writers. “Say you create a hip, young detective and the Ford Focus campaign bids for product placement in your show,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “What are you going to do? You don’t want your hip, cool detective driving around in a Focus.” Inevitably, creative conflicts arise, particularly when the direction of a show ends up incurably at odds with the needs of a sponsor. The Miller Brewing Co., for example, was the official beer of the firefighter drama Rescue Me until it grew uncomfortable with storylines about alcoholism and bar fights. The writers refused to budge, so Miller opted not to renew the deal. But these kinds of ruptures are increasingly rare, says Zazza. The smart producers and writers are learning to find ways to smooth out conflicts. “If the writers say, ‘No, that infringes on my creativity,’ then, you know, ‘Thank you, you can be creative without food in your mouth.’ The world is changing.”
IF ANYONE GLEANED the potential of such advertiser-producer-broadcaster collaborations early, it was the godfather of reality TV, Mark Burnett. In fact, Survivor originated the new model of TV production: create a show that is cheap to make, then fund it by selling real estate within it to sponsors.
To many, Survivor proved that well-conceived product placement can be more valuable than a dozen 30-second commercials— and that reality TV lets you get around the dramatic sensitivities and writer egos of scripted shows. The second season’s reward challenge, which featured junk foods as the grand prize, is considered a watershed moment. “They had these people who are starving and dying of thirst,” says Thompson, “and they would win a plate of Doritos and Mountain Dew and go orgasmic over them. And they weren’t acting. They were really that happy to see it.”
The success of the Survivor model inspired a sub-genre of reality TV that’s all about real people interacting with real brands. The phenomenon Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, for example, is essentially a show about outfitting hapless men with the right hair, clothes and home products. “It was developed as a creative show, period,” says Eric Korsh, COO of Scout Productions that created Queer Eye,
“but it dovetailed really nicely with increased instances of product placement.” And the producers take full advantage of the compatibility. Every month, hundreds of companies send products to the show’s “Fab Lab” in hopes that the Fab Five will endorse them on the show. (The featured goods can later
be purchased from the show’s website.)
But the apotheosis of blatant product integration is The Apprentice, in which brands like Mattel, Crest and Levi’s can monopolize the action of an entire episode. “A format like The Apprentice can be as over the top as it needs to be,” says Patti Ganguzza, president of a New York product integration firm that got Whisk into the second season’s finale. “It’s all about business.” Of course, branded entertainment has raised concerns that the television landscape is being transformed into a wasteland of infomercials and “advertainment.” Commercial Alert, an Oregon group cofounded by Ralph Nader, calls embedded advertising “an affront to basic honesty.” The organization petitioned the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to regulate branded entertainment, suggesting that shows be required to insert pop-up notifications to alert viewers to prearranged product placements. (Last week, the FTC mied against the group, concluding that existing rules can sufficiently address misleading embedded ads.)
For other critics, the problem is less ethics than cultural pollution. Product placement, says Bob Garfield, media critic for U.S. public radio NPR, is a recipe for terrible TV. “Even though Hollywood product is generally not exactly art, it’s still deemed pure entertainment,” he says. “And to the extent that advertisers corrupt that purity, audiences will stop paying attention. The near future may involve more advertainment, but it has no possibility of being sustained. Zero.” Some predict that, as network TV becomes “junkier,” viewers will turn to subscriber networks
like HBO that don’t rely on advertising revenue. That means we’d end up with two tiers of television—pay TV and free TV—with the free stuff functioning as a kind of Muzak, an inoffensive backdrop for commercial messages. “People who can afford to will watch the good stuff,” says media critic Douglas Rushkoff, who hosted a PBS documentary on branded marketing called The Persuaders. “Those who can’t will watch the dregs.” Despite such warnings, a recent study shows that viewers—particularly those aged 15 to 34—so far are exhibiting a high tolerance for integrated ads. In part, this is because young people have grown up surrounded by brands—from merchandisefilled kids’ shows to sports arenas to celebrity endorsements—making their presence essential to a realistic fictional environment. Using products with generic “beer” and “cola” labels, as networks once did, is the fastest way to lose credibility, says Dick Kyker, prop master for 24. “You’re trying to get the audience involved in your show,” he says, “but you’ve got an Apple computer with a black label blocking the logo. It looks so hokey. Who are they fooling? People know what products are out there.”
In fact, the TV industry is relying on the fact that people want to know, and see shows as yet another way to stay abreast of trends. It’s no coincidence that product integration is reaching its pinnacle just as TV and the Internet are on the brink of colliding. Within a decade, predicts Thompson, North Americans will be able to see a product on their screen, click on it with the remote and purchase it immediately. “One could anticipate getting to a point,” he says, “where a studio puts together a sitcom and takes bids from furniture companies as to who will supply the kitchen table, the sofa, the light fixtures— all of which viewers can click on and buy.” Television as a live-action catalogue—it’s not far-fetched. NBC recently launched a website where fans of Will & Grace and Las Vegas can shop for products featured on the shows, by set, character or episode.
For the average viewer, says Thompson, product placement and the economics of television aren’t major concerns—bad scripts are. “People could care less if a character is drinking Pepsi on sitcom X,” he says, “so long as the sitcom is funny.” If it’s not, they’ll just change the channel. I?H