Sponsors' Products Pop Up on TV Shows

— Fearless Prediction: This fall one of the hapless makeover subjects in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the hit cable show on Bravo that also runs on NBC, will likely be deemed to have inadequately gleaming teeth.

The solution? Crest Whitestrips. Procter & Gamble makes Crest, and it is now in talks with NBC to feature the strips in at least one episode of the new series as part of a broader ad deal.

Brace yourself for more of the same: product pitches inside the shows themselves. The new ads-inside entail far more than plopping a can of Coke into the foreground. Networks are inviting advertisers to help devise the plot or the look of a program to better showcase their brands. The aim is to cut through the clutter — and, though most TV executives won't admit it, to reach fidgety viewers who zap ads assiduously.

"People are not watching the commercials. The advertising guys at the networks are scared, and so are the agencies trying to find another way to do this," says Richard Frank, former president of Walt Disney Studios. He now is managing partner at Integrated Entertainment Partners, a new Beverly Hills shop working to make client products central to TV and movie plots.

The onrush of "reality" shows (no actors, no scripts, just regular folks and countless unblinking cameras) sparked this subliminal blitz. The new approach can be sort of subtle: Don't be surprised to spot a vintage Johnson & Johnson billboard on a ballfield circa 1909 in a made-for-TV movie on Spotlight Presentation, a TNT cable series paid for by J&J. Or painfully obvious: For Pepsi Smash, a summer concert series on the WB network, the cola company helped design the set and pick the hosts.

The industry calls this "brand integration," a nascent business (maybe $100 million this year) that is growing at least as fast as viewers are tuning out. And networks can exact a few extra sponsor dollars, up to a 20 percent premium in a spot-market buy.

Viewers with long memories (and long in the tooth) will notice a rerunlike quality to the strategy. In TV's earliest days, advertisers, as they had in radio, routinely produced their own programs and gave their products starring roles. Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater, which debuted in 1948, later became the Buick-Berle Show. I Love Lucy had opening credits that originally featured Lucy and Ricky stick figures frolicking around a box of Philip Morris cigarettes.

Reese's Pieces the Best Plant

But after the quiz show scandals of the late 1950s, networks took control of their programming and generally confined sponsors to 60-second spots. By the 1980s product placements took hold in Hollywood films. The best plant: Reese's Pieces in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.

In 1988 CBS shyly placed a Coke vending machine in the faculty lounge in a short-lived high school drama called TV101, keeping it in the background. The reality boom intensified the effort and made it more brazen. Starting in 2000, CBS and Survivor executive producer Mark Burnett featured products advertised on the show. Hungry contestants were rewarded with Doritos and Mountain Dew.

The new format is changing television offscreen, too. Hollywood talent agencies are marketing their connections. Heavyweight talent shop Creative Artists Agency claims credit for marrying Coca-Cola with Fox's American Idol, giving Coke an omnipresent role. The judges drink from Coke cups, and contestants are interviewed in a "red room" done up in Coke's signature color.

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