Ads creeping into TV programs




In the age of TiVo, the traditional commercial break may soon be as dead as the dodo.

In its place? Reality TV.

As viewers began to fast-forward through those pesky messages from participating sponsors, the creators of such shows as “Survivor” and “American Idol” pulled a fast one: They made the show the commercial.

This new generation of “brand entertainment,” where names like Coca-Cola, Baskin-Robbins and Pontiac are as much the stars of the show as the cast, blurs the line between advertisement and content as never before. And it’s as controversial as it is lucrative.

Brand entertainment’s biggest success story, “The Apprentice,” was crawling with not-so-subtle plugs this season – for Sony’s PlayStation 2, Everlast sporting equipment, Best Buy and Pepsi, among others.

“It’s a whole new ballgame – shows like ‘The Apprentice’ have taken the practice to a new level,” said Jeff Greenfield, executive vice president of 1st Approach, a product-placement firm based in Boston. “The ad has become part of the show; it’s the ultimate in product integration.”

Consumer advocates and media experts, however, have a less flattering name for it – “stealth advertising,” which they argue might even be a health hazard.

Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore., has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission to regulate reality TV the way they regulate infomercials for exercise equipment and diet supplements. The FTC ruled against Commercial Alert’s petition in February; the FCC ruling is pending.

“Programs like ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘American Idol’ deal in dishonest or stealth advertising that sneaks by our critical faculties and plants its message when we’re not paying attention,” said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. “What is ‘American Idol’ but an infomercial for Coca-Cola? And studies have shown that kids who drink too much cola are at risk of becoming obese.”

Product placement is hardly new. Humphrey Bogart drinks Gordon’s Gin in “The African Queen,” and Tom Cruise shoulders a new Hitachi video camera in this month’s “War of the Worlds.” On the small screen, Cisco Systems’ new network-security system figured in an episode of “24,” and the attaché case no one could open on “Lost” was a Zero Halliburton.

But for manufacturers, big and small, reality TV has been the real cash cow.

Crest’s vanilla mint toothpaste, AT&T;’s text-messaging phones and Illuminations’ candle sconce all saw boosts in sales after being featured on “The Apprentice,” “American Idol” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” respectively. Pontiac received 1,000 orders for its Solstice roadster in just 41 minutes the day after the car played a prominent role in an April episode of “The Apprentice.”

Before the advent of TiVo and reality TV, a Solstice commercial would have been tuned out by “90 percent of TV viewers who get up and leave during commercials,” said Greenfield.

“TiVo has set in motion the ability of the audience to control what they view. So advertisers are trying different avenues to reach consumers: films, video games, sporting events, reality TV,” said Norm Marshall, whose NMA Entertainment made Sears a fixture on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and placed Baskin-Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts in an episode of “The Apprentice.”

Business is good for NMA Entertainment, one of the most successful brand-integration companies, with offices in Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Tokyo.

In an average week, NMA reviews 15 to 20 new reality-TV concepts for its clients, which include General Motors, Hitachi, Heineken, Baskin-Robbins, Denny’s and the Xbox division of Microsoft. If a deal is struck, the advertiser will help get the show on the air and then chip in on production costs, which can run as high as $1 million an episode.

Marshall and other proponents of product placement say it’s unnecessary to regulate the practice because the public can choose to tune out. That’s what happened on the short-lived reality series “The Restaurant,” which included countless gratuitous plugs for Coors Light and American Express.

“They just overdid it, and the audience turned away,” Marshall said. “They’re not stupid.”