In an episode of 90210, Dixon and Annie pack a coolerful of Dr Pepper for their road trip to Arizona and vow to drink nothing else during spring break.
In the online-gaming world, Sims 3 players can take the Renault Twizy electric concept car for a spin around their virtual neighborhood.
And in the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney faithfully stays at Hilton Hotels and flies only on American Airlines.
None of this embedded advertising happened by accident. The makers of each of these products worked hard to secure their on-screen appearances. And these kinds of product placements are becoming a lot more common as advertisers look for new ways to get their messages across to consumers.
For years, food, car, and electronics companies have offered, and often paid, to have their products included as props in TV shows and movies. But in recent years, as DVRs have made it easier to skip traditional 30-second ads, advertisers have sought new ways to pitch their brands, including paying producers to script them into TV shows, as well as movies, videos, and video games.
"We want to blur the lines between the commercial breaks and the entertainment content," says Dario Spina, who handles "integrated marketing" for Comedy Central, Spike, and MTV's other entertainment channels. But some watchdog groups are concerned about the explosive growth of what is sometimes called "advertainment."
"Typically, when people view a commercial that they know is a commercial, they employ a veil of skepticism," says Corie Wright at Free Press, a nonprofit organization that works to educate consumers about media. But "product placement tends to shape viewers' preferences even [when] the viewer isn't aware they've seen a commercial."
Of particular concern for Wright is the growth of product placements on news shows, which raises the possibility of conflicts of interest when the shows cover stories associated with any of their sponsors.
Wright wants the F.C.C. (Federal Communications Commission) to make its product disclosure rules more strictcurrently, advertisers and media companies can disclose product placements in small type in the show's end creditsand to extend the rule to include cable television, not just network TV.
In a way, the current wave of product placements is a return to the roots of television and, before that, radio marketing. In TV's early days in the 1950s, soap, tobacco, and oil companies wedged themselves into the very titles of the shows they producedlike the Colgate Comedy Hour and the Texaco Star Theater. (Singing gas-station attendants opened the Texaco show each week with a jingle: "We're the merry Texaco-men, tonight we may be showmen, tomorrow we'll be servicing your cars.")
But rising production costs and the quiz-show scandals of the late 1950s (in which sponsors played a part in rigging shows) pushed advertisers out of the business of producing shows themselves. Marketers then began focusing on the 30-second ad spots.
Product placement began its TV comeback about a decade ago, when Survivor tried it with great success, selling $4 million sponsorships to advertisersincluding Reebok, Ericsson, and Dr. Scholl'sto insert their products into the show.
The sponsorship revenue covered most of the show's production costs, and other networks jumped on the bandwagon. Pretty soon, millions of Americans found themselves watching Paula, Simon, and Randy sipping from Coca-Cola cups every week as they sat in judgment of singing contestants on American Idol. "American Idol kind of made it cool to integrate your brands into programs," says David Kaplan of Nielsen IAG. "It was hard to avoid, it was prominently featured, and it was on a show that had more viewers than any other in the country."
Nielsen measures the effectiveness of product-placement on TV by polling thousands of viewers every day to see how well they recall particular placements and how well they thought the products fit into the show.
Kaplan says other reality shows, and eventually scripted programs, took their cue from Idol and got a lot more sophisticated. It's no longer just a matter of leaving soda cans or cereal boxes on the kitchen table; brands are now getting incorporated into the storylines by the shows' writers from the very beginning: Modern Family, for example, recently scripted an entire episode around the iPad, while Community integrated an elaborate plot about KFC into a recent show.
Today, product placement is a way of life in many media. Revenue from product placement in music videos has doubled since 2000 to nearly $20 million last year, according to PQ Media. In the past, MTV was the dominant outlet for music videos, and company policy prohibited blatant product plugs. But as video viewing has migrated to the Webto sites like YouTube and VEVOproduct placement has become more common.
The "Telephone" video, which prominently features at least half a dozen brandssome by Lady Gaga's artistic choice, some for paymentmay be the most brash example. But with CD sales plunging as downloading (both legal and illegal) soars, more music artists and record labels are trying to use their videos to make money rather than to simply promote an album, as they have in the past.
50 Million Mini Cooper Views
Atlantic Records' video for "Billionaire," the hit song by Travie McCoy that features Bruno Mars, includes a paid placement of a Mini Cooper. This turned out to be a good investment for BMW, which makes the Mini: The video has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube. And unlike other types of advertising that run with music videoslike 15-second ads before the music, purchased for a specific period of time or number of viewsthe Mini placement in the video will be around for as long as the video itself.
Hollywood is also incorporating more products into scripts than ever before. In the past, studio executives handled negotiations to include products in films. But with rising moviemaking costs, screenwriters and producers are increasingly working with advertisers before their scripts are fully shaped. That way, the products can be woven into storylines more organically.
Jordan Yospe is a branded-entertainment lawyer who works with screenwriters and producers early in the filmmaking process to advise on product integration. He says hitting the right note is something of an art.
"I'd rather see a can of Coke or a can of Pepsi" than a generic soda can, which he says pulls people out of the story. "But I don't want to see a character hold up a can and say, 'This is great Coke.' Everything needs to be done in the appropriate degree of moderation."
The more intricately a brand is woven into a movie, however, the more a brand pays for the appearance, with fees ranging from several hundred thousand dollars to several million dollars per film. For the moviegoer, the result is more-elaborate advertising woven into movie plots.
In terms of the surge in product placement on television, Nielsen's David Kaplan says many viewers don't mind. "What the data is showing us is that consumers seem very much OK with product placement, and, if anything, find them to actually enhance their viewing experience."
Even so, Corie Wright of Free Press says it's important for people to be aware of the various media messages around them, and to stop and think about whether brands in movies, TV shows, music videos, and video games are there because of a creative decision or because someone's trying to sell you something.
"Nine times out of 10," Wright says, "they're trying to sell you something."
(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, January 10, 2011)