June 16th, 2008
'Chloe, it's Jack. Who does our phones?'
By Ravi Somaiya
The Guardian (UK)
Product placement in US television series and films has become shameless, say both viewers and writers. But producers argue shows can't survive without it
Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, may have given product placement the thumbs down in Britain - but in the US Jack Bauer still wants you to use Dell Computers and Ford cars. Although, if that’s not quite your style, you could always turn to Michael Scott, American boss of The Office, who only uses Hewlett Packard. Or the casts of Heroes and Desperate Housewives, who would be disappointed if you drove anything but a Nissan.
In a country where even the subtitling is sponsored and the running time of most shows is almost one-third commercials, no opportunity to sell is missed. Which is why there were a massive 117,976 individual product placements across America’s top 11 TV channels in the first three months of this year, according to Nielsen Media Research. And the phenomenon is growing - the top 10 prime-time programmes alone were responsible for an increase of 39% in product placement in the last year across the six biggest channels.
Reality TV offers huge scope for product placement. The Biggest Loser, in which contestants compete to lose the most weight for a $250,000 prize, was responsible for almost 4,000 different plugs from companies such as Quaker Oats, Wrigley’s Extra chewing gum and Subway - all vying for a share of the $60bn weight-loss market. Fans online described the segments, one of which included a trainer handing out sugar-free gum for no apparent reason while discussing how great it was, as everything from “random” to “painful”.
American Idol, the most watched show on US TV, also managed to shoehorn in more than 3,000 placements. Coca-Cola has its logo on the cups judges keep on their table, Ford gives the winners cars, Old Navy dresses the contestants and Clairol does their hair. AT&T, the mobile phone company, is rumoured to pay up to $50m for a deal which mixes traditional ads and frequent product placement.
But it’s not just reality TV where product placement is rife. Fans of Heroes were appalled by a recent scene in which cheerleader Claire gets a Nissan Rogue SUV. “Daddy, you’re giving me the Rogue,” squeals Hayden Panettiere as her father hands over the keys. “They shamelessly contrived a scene thats [sic] sole purpose was product placement,” said one fan on the tech blog Gizmodo.
In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find any TV that doesn’t feature some product placement. Even Lost, a show that takes place on a desert island, managed to fit a Motorola phone into its plotline.
When you factor in the enormous film market (just think of I, Robot or any James Bond movie) and the burgeoning placements in computer games such as Metal Gear Solid IV, the dollars mount up. The estimate for the total yearly spend on product placement deals in the US from the media agency PQMedia is a staggering $7bn to $10bn. That’s a lot of revenue for producers - and coincidentally also slightly more than the GDP of Paraguay.
With so much at stake, television writers are complaining that they’re becoming advert writers, according to the New York Times. Those who protest about requests to work a product into a script are overruled, Jody Frisch, director of public policy and government affairs of the Writers Guild of America, told the paper.
Dr John McCarty, head of marketing at The College of New Jersey, thinks the huge growth in product placement is a direct consequence of DVRs, which allow people to record programmes and thus fast-forward ads, becoming widespread in America. “Product placement is a way of getting the product to a person in a way that they can’t avoid it,” he says.
Since ET caused sales of Reece’s Pieces chocolate to spike back in 1982, after the critter adopted it as his favourite snack, advertisers have been steadily increasing product placement. But is the strategy still effective 26 years later?
“In general it works best if it’s not perceived as product placement, if it’s natural,” says McCarty. “In the show Sex and the City, and the movie too, they talked about a lot of brands of clothing. But those women in that situation would be expected to know about fashion, so it didn’t seem unreasonable for them to mention those names. You expect to see brands in a story. People in TV shows are going to use products and it’s almost better to have a real brand than a can that just says ‘Cola’ or something.
“The problem is any time the storyline has gotten bogged down around the product, and it seems unrelated,” he adds. “There shouldn’t be a tug between the people telling the story and the commercial enterprise.”
But for some, any product placement is too much. Kalle Lasn is editor-in-chief of Adbusters magazine, an anti-advertising publication. He thinks that it’s unethical to sell to Americans without their realising it. “It’s especially bad for kids. It’s totally unconscionable when it’s been proven that they are so susceptible to branding.”
But surely we enjoy the shows, and if traditional ad revenues are declining, they have to be made up somewhere? “I just don’t buy that we have to subject our kids to brainwashing to fund TV and movies. There were lots of very good movies made before product placement which did just fine,” Lasn says.
NBC Universal, makers of Heroes and The Office, couldn’t find a spokesperson to respond in time for this article. McCarty says: “The public in general isn’t all that bothered. They probably won’t be until it gets to the point where all they’re talking about on TV is the product.” If that happens, he says, viewers can “vote with their remote control”.