Sponsors' Products Pop Up on TV Shows

ByAllison Fass and Peter Kafka, <a href="http://www.forbes.com", target="external">Forbes.com</a>

Sept. 19, 2003 -- — 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.

In some cases advertisers or their agencies cover all production costs themselves, offering free content in exchange for putting their products at center stage — and even at times the agencies pocketing a share of the show's ad sales.

NBC's The Restaurant, this summer's six-episode reality show about a New York bistro, is the first prime-time series in decades produced in part by an ad agency, the Interpublic Group of Cos. One executive producer credit goes to an agency suit: Robert Riesenberg, who heads up production unit Magna Global Entertainment.

Interpublic shouldered the show's $1 million-per-episode cost, then recouped it by selling half of the ad slots to three clients. NBC got a free show and the other half of the commercial time. The three advertisers — Mitsubishi, Coors Light and American Express — also had supporting roles.

In the show's quick-cut opening credits, star chef Rocco DiSpirito drives a Mitsubishi SUV, kitchen staff lug a case of Coors Light and an American Express card flashes by in a close-up. In one episode DiSpirito, unable to pay staff, taps his AmEx account, telling an employee, "Just go to the AmEx Open account." In another he tries to boost employee morale by throwing a beach party, where Coors Light flows freely. "People get the joke," says Benjamin Silverman, who produced the show with Interpublic and Survivor Svengali Burnett.

Next up from the Interpublic shop: House Rules, airing on TBS next month, in which couples vie to remodel the perfect home. Lowe's is funding the show's costs.

But network execs insist product cameos will always get second billing to commercials. "These integrated packages are a fact of life, but they're not going to take over our schedule," says Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting. "The viewer can take only so much."

A Tricky Pursuit

Reality shows' anything-goes conceit makes it easy to insert brands and products, but now they are creeping into fictional fare. This summer NBC, as part of an ad pact with Avon, wove Avon's new Mark line into episodes of its daytime soap Passions. A character became a Mark sales rep, delighting her parents.

Ford is sponsoring this fall's commercial-free premiere of 24, a gripping terrorist drama on Fox, and getting long-form ads before or afterward and a role for the new Ford F-150. "The truck makes Jack look more like a hero," enthuses Richard Stoddart, a Ford marketing manager.

Next spring Vivendi Universal's SciFi channel will air Five Days Till Midnight, a whodunit miniseries; up to 10 sponsors that buy ads for the four or five episodes get to place products into the plot.

But it's a tricky pursuit, one that could interfere with story lines and scare away competing brands that otherwise might advertise on a show. "We are very sensitive to the potential of overcommercialization" says Chuck B. Fruit, a senior vice president at Coca-Cola.

"It's kind of creepy to suddenly see various products within your set," says Caryn Mandabach, a partner in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, which produces That '70s Show for Fox and the newcomer Whoopi, set for NBC. Last spring her firm, along with producer Burnett, sold the WB a pilot for a sitcom that followed an American family motoring around Europe. Part of the pitch: plenty of opportunity to feature cars or credit cards. It never aired.

Not to worry — lots more come-ons are coming your way.

For more, go to Forbes.com..

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