September 20th, 2006

The Newest Characters on TV Shows: Product Plugs

By Gary Levin
USA Today

NBC has high hopes for Friday Night Lights, a new drama about a Texas high school football squad based on a best-selling book and feature film. Viewers will see some familiar names on the sidelines — and not just the actors.

The team’s frequent hangout? A neighborhood Applebee’s restaurant, where one player’s girlfriend becomes a waitress. The stadium is stocked with Gatorade and features AT&T billboards. Another character’s car dealership might sell Toyotas, including the new Tundra to be featured elsewhere in the show. And in one episode, teammates will head for the multiplex to see Fox’s Eragon, a fantasy film due in theaters in December.

It’s all part of a rapidly growing trend called product integration that marks a sea change in the TiVo era. For years, movies and some TV shows have featured real products instead of generic “cola” bottles. Such placements were often paid for by sponsors but lingered in the background.

But ever since Survivor began plying famished contestants with Doritos and American Idol’s Simon Cowell was never far from a big red Coke glass, the script has changed. Sitcoms and dramas are the new product showcases as a shrinking ad market, climbing production costs and ad-skipping technology lead networks to become more blatant about dropping product names into their shows.

Rather than exist as mere props, products are being woven more tightly into story lines as crucial plot points or subjects of dialogue, making ad messages impossible to skip. If Friends aired today, the gang probably would sip Starbucks Frappuccinos instead of the daily brew at the fictional Central Perk.

Peter Berg, the actor and producer behind Lights (and its precursor feature film), says product plugs are now a fact of life in the “diabolically competitive” TV business, and some money from the ad deals is funneled back into the show’s production budget, which helped pay to renovate a weathered stadium in Texas, where the series is filmed.

“Anything that gives a little financial relief, you can’t ignore, and anyone who ignores it is delusional,” Berg says. “It’s all about giving them what they need in a way that doesn’t violate the integrity or offend the audience to feel like they’re being subliminally manipulated into watching a commercial.”

Which is, of course, exactly what’s happening.

“Advertisers are getting less and less complacent with the notion of their commercial being seen,” says veteran producer John Wells (ER, The West Wing), who says such deals are most prevalent at struggling networks. “It’s all coming. The question is: How we do it in a way that it doesn’t alienate viewers?”

Or actors, who are being asked to shill for products with no extra pay. Last spring, CSI star William Petersen was greeted at a nighttime shoot by a pair of tricked-out GMC Denalis, which surfaced to help comb for a missing body as cameras lingered.

“I said, ‘There’s no dramatic value in this. Move the Denalis out of here or I’m not shooting.’ I’m not here to sell cars.” (The Denalis were featured in another episode in which Petersen didn’t appear.)

And Wells says actors’ own endorsement deals sometimes conflict with the products their characters are asked to mention, drive or use.

The Writers Guild of America is seeking more involvement in the process for scriptwriters, charging that some have been forced to shoehorn plugs into series.

“A couple of times, and I get it, it’s been shoved down their throat the wrong way, and that’s what annoys them,” CBS chief Leslie Moonves says. He nonetheless champions the practice as a new ad model: “This is a way to offset zapping commercials.”

How the practice began

Inserting messages into programming isn’t new: Television’s early days featured stars talking up sponsors during programs such as Texaco Star Theater. Products turned up as props, some paid, others not, within shows. And feature films are as rife with product placements as NASCAR.

But the modern era of “brand integration” can be traced to the rise of unscripted reality and game shows: AT&T’s “Phone a Friend” on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 1999, and after that, dozens of products featured in Survivor and other series.

More recently came sitcoms and dramas, from The King of Queens (Doug visits Lowe’s home-improvement centers) to Desperate Housewives, when Gabrielle, broke, is forced to hawk Buicks at a mall.

Now the floodgates are open, as advertisers see the benefits and programmers look to reaffirm the value of TV exposure as advance ad sales decline. But networks say they’re being cautious about stuffing too many products throughout prime time.

Marketers spent $941 million on TV product placements last year, up 70% from 2004, and $350 million of that total was devoted to sitcoms and dramas, says PQ Media, a Connecticut research firm.

“This is all still in its infancy,” says ABC senior vice president Dan Longest. “We’re seeing a ravenous appetite to explore this new territory. (But) it’s not just about putting a brand in a program; there has to be meaningful relevance.”

Adds Home Depot marketing chief Roger Adams, who expects the retailer’s integration deals to grow 20% this year: “We want something that fits the fabric of the show. If it looks like a sponsorship salute, if it’s just blatant commercialism, then we’d rather just buy a commercial.”

Home Depot sent the cast of Girlfriends to one of its in-store clinics last season in an effort to recruit more blacks and women to the do-it-yourself market. This year, it will tie into an episode of CBS’ The New Adventures of Old Christine and plans two more appearances on Girlfriends.

“It’s a no-brainer that I can’t degrade the product, but (sponsors) have to be open to realistic talk,” says Mara Brock Akil, executive producer of the CW sitcom and spinoff The Game, which will work Toyota into a plot this season. “We weren’t heavy-handed with it, and so neither brand —Girlfriends or Home Depot — was bastardized.”

Law & Order producer Dick Wolf says some shows lend themselves to product plugs — just not his. “If somebody wanted to integrate a product into (our) story, I would find that risible,” he says, just as he would if former Law star Jill Hennessy, now on Crossing Jordan, “all of a sudden started to wear Kmart clothes and everybody in the Boston coroner’s office wears them because they absorb formaldehyde better. When it’s ham-fisted, it’s counterproductive.”

In a noteworthy example of overkill last spring, family drama 7th Heaven featured an extended riff on Oreo dunking by several characters, one of whom proposed with an engagement ring hidden inside the cookie.

But other producers join Berg in shrugging off the ethical considerations, noting that such ad placements are now a cost of doing business for many new or struggling series, which need the exposure that ad tie-ins often generate.

“These shows need money,” says Joe Davola, president of Tollin/Robbins Television, who welcomes the “slush fund” that has allowed him to do complex shooting on otherwise tight-fisted budgets.

‘Nobody’s twisting my arm’

The company’s One Tree Hill has featured Cingular cellphones, Sunkist soft drinks and Secret deodorant; Smallville had Acuvue contact lenses. The canceled WB sitcom What I Like About You was a poster child for product plugs, integrating Pringles and Swiffer and building an entire episode around an Herbal Essences shampoo contest between two characters.

“Nobody’s twisting my arm, and I’m not a schlockmeister,” Davola says. “Basically I said, ‘This is something I need to do and I’d better control it.’ “ And he adds such ad deals “helped us get a fourth season” on the new CW network for One Tree Hill, considered a tossup for renewal.

Generally, “it’s easier to integrate products in unscripted shows,” says Warner Bros. executive vice president Craig Hunegs. “There are more opportunities to fit in, and you can put more products in the show without it feeling jarring to the viewer. I think that’s why (integration) first emerged there.”

But one major ad buyer says that makes them less desirable, as viewers are hip to the hard sell. “Integration into reality shows is unnatural, and everybody’s in on it, but sometimes they work,” says Tim Spengler of Initiative Media. “Integration into scripted shows is more relevant, and when they fit the story, it’s the holy grail.”

Networks say shows often seek authentic locations or products anyway, so getting paid for using them is not much of a stretch. Writers of NBC’s The Office found Chili’s a willing partner to host its “Dundee Awards,” even though the show gently mocks the chain.

“It’s nice when product integration can add to the verisimilitude for the audience,” says ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson.

But unlike reality shows, which are often built around product sponsorships, sitcoms and dramas don’t force the issue: Producers of UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris and CBS’ How I Met Your Mother turned their noses up at deals, and advertisers moved on. “A guiding rule is, ‘Don’t let your product inhibit how you tell your story,’ “ CBS Paramount TV president David Stapf says.

And though he was fine plugging Buick, “there’s growing concern that if an advertiser starts to dictate a story line, just how horrible that would be,” Housewives producer Marc Cherry said last spring.

Stars aren’t always game, especially when scripts call for them to hawk products, but unlike Petersen, some lack the clout to complain. “As an actor, it feels false, it feels like a commercial,” says Chi McBride, who stars in ABC’s upcoming The Nine. “I realize this isn’t a business driven by art — it’s driven by commerce. We all know that, so I don’t have a hard time accepting that it goes on.

“(But) we’re going to have to participate with the networks in this thing in order for the television business to continue the way it is.”

Anti-ad-clutter groups such as Commercial Alert are upset over what they call possibly illegal promotion of products that are sometimes not identified as paying sponsors.

The legality of ‘hidden plugs’

“The networks are being dishonest by not disclosing sponsorships,” says the group’s executive director, Gary Ruskin. “They’re brazenly violating the public’s right to know about who is seeking to persuade them.” He has filed petitions with the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission seeking to have such product integrations disclosed at the beginning and during each segment, not just fleetingly in the show’s closing credits.

The FTC turned him down. The FCC has yet to act, but commissioner Jonathan Adelstein calls “insidious” the practice of “weaving ads into story lines,” and says it “pushes the limits of the level of commercialism the public is willing to accept. My biggest concern is that the disclosure is often inadequate.”

The conflict isn’t new. NBC battled with scriptwriters in the 1950s — when most shows mentioned sponsors in their titles — over “hidden plugs,” says Iowa State University professor Jay Newell, a historian who has studied the history of product placement in film and TV.

But now, “mass media is all advertising, all the time, and the fear is it will create a generation of cynical viewers who look at everything on the screen as an attempt to sell them something,” Newell says.

Yet his own students “look at brand integration as something they expect.”

Which explains why youth-oriented networks such as UPN and WB (which this week morph into CW) and MTV are most aggressive at promoting it. CW even is filling commercial slots with “content wraps,” or fully-sponsored two-minute programs that weave in more products.

So it might not be too long before the Friday Night Lights players wear logos on their uniforms. Scott Porter, who plays the star quarterback, says he doesn’t mind the show’s squad of on-screen sponsors. But he acknowledges “viewers might not like it if it’s too obvious.” And then, he’d be out of work.

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