Product Placement – The Plot Sickens

The gang in the WB television comedy “What I Like About You” has been lunching at Chili’s now and then this season.

One of the characters, Vince (Nick Zano), recently got a job there.

And fans who watch the Nov. 18 episode will hear an appeal for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., a charity favored by Chili’s.

Vince’s job and the gatherings at Chili’s resulted after the TV network and the restaurant chain made a promotional deal, and are an example of “product integration,” an escalation of the age-old tradition of product placement.

Product placement, in its most basic form, is the art of setting a box or bottle so that its label is within range of a movie or TV camera. But with product integration, the product becomes part of the story, not merely a set decoration.

Both are increasingly becoming advertisers’ method of choice for reaching consumers in movies, TV shows, even novels and plays.

With digital video recorders and VCRs making it easier for viewers to zap past commercials, and with DVDs offering more chances to see shows without the ads, advertisers want their products smack in the middle of the programs – where they can’t be avoided. Apple’s recent introduction of the video iPod, which allows TV shows to be viewed commercial-free, has only increased the perceived need for injecting products into the programs themselves.

The practice has its critics. Gary Ruskin, president of the nonprofit group Commercial Alert, calls product placement “dishonest advertising … stealth advertising. It sneaks by our critical faculties and plants images in our brains when we’re paying less attention.”

Hollywood writers also have sounded an alarm. The Writers Guild of America, west, recently issued a statement declaring that “product integration is blurring the line between advertising and content.” Guild President Patric Verrone called it “a disservice to the American audience.”

They’re fighting a century of history. Placement began with the earliest commercially released movies in the late 19th century, and it’s not about to stop now.

A ‘Wild West’

How much advertisers shell out for product placement, and the return they get on their investment, are difficult to estimate.

“It’s still kind of the Wild West out there,” said Patrick Quinn, president of PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm that conducted a six-month study of the subject. “There is no uniform system.”

Nevertheless, his firm estimated product-placement spending in all media last year at $3.46 billion, a 30.5 percent increase over 2003’s total. TV’s share jumped 46.4 percent, to $1.87 billion. Most of that is in the form of “barter.” The advertiser buys commercials in a show, then pays a premium to get a mention in the script.

Placement can be as simple and discreet as a can of Budweiser in an actor’s hand or a close-up of a Dell computer in the CBS drama “Without a Trace,” or as blatant as an entire episode of NBC’s “The Apprentice” plugging the new Sony movie “Zathura.”

In an episode of CBS’ “The King of Queens” last spring, a store clerk forgot to charge the character Carrie (Leah Remini) for an iPod, and much of the plot revolved around her guilt over getting the “free” player. When she told a priest, he agreed that an iPod was a really cool gadget, all right.

Contestants in UPN’s “America’s Next Top Model” recently took turns delivering sales pitches for Secret Platinum Clear Gel, and every episode of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” is an hour-long advertisement for 24-Hour Fitness gyms.

The practice stretches to the silent-screen era. Jay Newell, an assistant journalism professor at Iowa State University who studies the ad industry, has found product placements as early as 1896, when Lever Bros. (now called Unilever) wangled bars of Sunlight soap into the first silent films.

In one of the oldest forms of placement, the product is the title of the show. That practice goes back to radio – “The Lux Radio Theater,” “The Kraft Music Hall” – and early television: “G.E. Theater,” “The Dinah Shore Chevy Show,” “The U.S. Steel Hour.” And it’s still around today in “The Hallmark Hall of Fame” and “The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.”

Even literature isn’t immune. Jewelry maker Bulgari paid British author Fay Weldon to write a novel – “The Bulgari Connection” – with its products featured in the plot. Playwright Neil Simon approved a script change in the revival of “Sweet Charity.” Now, instead of ordering “a double scotch on the rocks,” a character in the play asks for Gran Centenario Tequila.

Last spring, fans of the teen drama “The O.C.” were treated to an example of human product placement. Movie producer George Lucas appeared as himself, written into the script, chatting with a regular character.

He never mentioned that “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” was about to be released, but his mere presence was reminder enough.

Holy grail

Lucas’ appearance wasn’t quite the holy grail of product placement – that’s still the trail of Reese’s Pieces in “E.T.” – but it was close enough.

Getting all those products on the set isn’t exactly a mysterious process.

Jeff Greenfield, vice president of product-placement agency 1st Approach, said: “You’re a set designer, and you get your script for the week, and you’ve got a limited budget. You’ve got a choice. Either you get products provided for you by a brand, or you’ve gotta go out and rent it or buy it.

“Ninety-nine percent of all brands in television are there for free. People don’t pay for them.”

Last summer, Greenfield sent nearly 1,000 Black & Decker Autotapes, a tape measure that extends automatically, to Hollywood script writers.

“Black & Decker didn’t pay anyone to get on these shows,” he said. “They provided the product and paid us for our time. We provided a service. We knew it was cool and cutesy enough that the writers would have fun with it.”

As a result, the Autotape was seen in episodes of “The King of Queens” and “Still Standing,” and a character in UPN’s comedy “Cuts” actually used one.

As often happens, the public doesn’t agree with the critics.

“I’m fascinated why people don’t seem to be upset at all with product placement,” Newell said. “They seem to like it. My students say they expect to find recognizable products in their television shows and movies.”

Those Reese’s Pieces in “E.T.” in 1982 remain one of the best-remembered examples of product placement. Hershey placed its candy in “E.T.” for free, then the company bought $1 million in commercials that pitched both the candy and the movie, Newell said.

Reese’s Pieces had been on the market for just two years, but the “E.T.” appearance helped establish the brand’s place in the market – to the chagrin of the maker of M&Ms;, which turned down an offer to be in the film.

Placement is in part “a defensive strategy,” a response to DVRs, VCRs, DVDs, video games and the like, said Quinn of PQ Media. But “in another respect, it’s capitalizing on trends. Seventy percent of Americans are more apt to try or buy a product they saw in a placement on television than if they saw it in a 30-second spot.”

The word “defensive” can also be used in another sense. “You might see Coca-Cola in a movie because they don’t want Pepsi there,” Newell said.

Results are hard to measure, but sometimes they’re obvious.

When “The Apprentice” devoted an episode to plugging the sporty new Pontiac Solstice, 1,000 coupons giving holders first shot at driving and buying the first cars off the assembly line were gone 44 minutes after the show aired, Quinn said.

“That’s a great return on investment as far as they’re concerned,” he said.

Not everybody is crazy about the practice.

Ruskin’s 2,000-member group wants Congress to pass a “Product Placement Disclosure Act” that would require disclosure of product placement all across media, whether it’s TV, movies, video games, books, videos, songs, whatever.

“When the Coke can comes up on ‘American Idol,’ there would be a small, superimposed graphic that would say ‘Advertisement,’ ” Ruskin said. “In Europe, most product placement is either illegal or severely restricted.”

Quinn doesn’t believe viewers are being fooled. “I think American consumers are very savvy, and they know what’s product placement and what isn’t,” he said. “People are savvy, and if it’s done well, it’s going to work.

“If it’s not done well, as in ‘The Restaurant,’ where the guy was reading off cue cards in a trendy Italian restaurant and selling Coors beer, which no one bought, it’s not going to work and the show is going off the air.”

By Robert P. Laurence