NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Want to buy a vowel? In these days of changing technology and economic strife, you can have that and so much more. Walt Disney's ABC, known in marketing circles for its resistance to giving advertisers flamboyant tie-ins to its most popular shows, is -- in certain cases -- putting the "O" in "Lost" up for sale.
The opening sequence in "Lost" has stayed much the same throughout the enigmatic program's five seasons. As steadfast viewers know, the word "Lost" swivels on screen against a dark backdrop as eerie music plays. Viewers were surprised last week, however, when a veritable constellation of stars filled that black space and the U.S.S. Enterprise made a beeline out of the onscreen letter. The images on screen quickly morphed into an ad for Paramount Pictures' "Star Trek" movie.
While ABC intends to remain "very, very selective" about making such program elements available to advertisers, the network is "open to it," said Geri Wang, ABC's senior VP of prime-time sales. "If the creative makes sense, that's the critical factor in deciding how to make these things work," she said. (It doesn't hurt, of course, when "Star Trek" director J.J. Abrams is also the producer of "Lost.")
Product placement has been around for decades, but TV networks and print publications have long acted as police officers when monitoring the practice, allowing some ideas but keeping many out. Maintaining the integrity of a newspaper's front page or a TV network's flagship drama was as important as keeping an advertiser happy and satisfied. Now, due to a host of factors, media outlets have begun to abandon some of their previous, long-standing resistance to letting marketers burrow even more deeply into their properties.
Networks want to be 'marketer-friendly'
During this season, "where a lot of players in broadcast and cable know they will be selling less inventory in their upfronts -- they are going to be more willing to talk with marketers about how they can incorporate their brands into their content. All the networks want to be marketer-friendly," said Christopher Vollmer, who leads the global media practice at management consultant Booz & Co., referring to the mid-May upfront sessions, during which networks try to sell 75% to 80% of their ad inventory for the coming season.
Just as Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock did on "Star Trek," ad buyers expect media outlets to allow advertisers "to boldly go where no man has gone before," so to speak. "Things that might have been sacrosanct before are now negotiable," said Peter Tortorici, a former CBS executive who is president of WPP Group's Group M Entertainment.
ABC's "Star Trek" tie-in isn't the only recent example of a media outlet allowing a deeper -- and sometimes more intrusive -- product appearance. Tongues have wagged over two recent episodes of NBC's "Chuck," which featured characters uttering ad slogans from Subway. The April 14 episode of CW's "90210" sported characters going on a road trip with a cooler filled only with Dr Pepper. At one point, one of the main characters uttered the line: "We're on a road trip! Drinking Dr Pepper is practically a requirement." The Los Angeles Times' "Show Tracker" blog cracked: "Tonight's episode of '90210' deserves an award for the single most egregious example of product placement in the history of television."
Earlier this season, Coca-Cola's Vitaminwater seemed to dominate the set of a "Gossip Girl" episode set in the Hamptons. Meanwhile, NBC Universal ad-sales chief Mike Pilot told advertisers in presentations this week that Jay Leno was "advertiser- friendly" and "not afraid to experiment with live commercials and with sponsorships."
Other media also affected
The trend is translating to media other than broadcast TV. Discovery Networks and toymaker Hasbro are teaming up to create a cable channel for kids that will feature programming based on Hasbro products and properties. The Los Angeles Times recently ran a front-page ad for NBC's cop-drama "Southland" that looked very much like a news article (labeled as an "advertisement"). Just this week, News Corp.'s Wall Street Journal ran a full-page ad for Stihl chainsaws in its front section using text and a byline that looked very similar to those used in the paper's news articles. In an effort to allay confusion, the paper also let readers know at the top of the page that the promotion was an "advertisement."
Few of these media outlets would have allowed such stuff as little as three or four years ago, according to media executives and ad buyers. But much has changed over that period of time.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter allow marketers to insert themselves into the rapid patter of items that make up the real-time feed created by each user. No distraction there. Traditional media outlets, however, have for decades relied on ads and promotions that interrupt; product placements and tie-ins can help them emulate some of those new-media attributes. Digital video recorders and a rise in online use of news give viewers and readers heightened power to avoid TV commercials and print ads. Most important, the roiling economy is forcing media outlets to do certain deals just to maintain relationships with top clients at a time when the flow of ad dollars has narrowed.
"Advertisers and agencies are expecting more and more for our money now, and we're looking for price concessions. We're looking for more-customized marketing opportunities. We are looking for as much value as our money can get," said Stacey Shepatin, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hill Holliday. "The network that hustles to try to create them for us, the more value of the amount of money you're placing on the network."
Meanwhile, media outlets sense the marketplace has changed and that flexibility can often be the key to survival. "We've been looking at innovative advertising opportunities and have had them in the paper for some time," said Robert Christie, a spokesman for The Wall Street Journal.
Marketers also admit they have become more aggressive. Expect more of the technique from Subway, for instance. "We're doing this as an ongoing way of making sure we get to the audience," said Tony Pace, CMO of Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, in a recent interview with Ad Age. "In a world where everyone is fully aware of fragmentation and audience size declining, you've got to make sure your message gets out."
Value in branded ventures
At Dr Pepper, executives see value in building so-called branded-entertainment ventures, said Elena Zanolin, entertainment marketing manager for Dr Pepper. "As the media landscape continues to become more fragmented, we do believe it is necessary to find creative ways to reach consumers and maintain relevance," she said. "Our strategy is not to 'insert brand here,' but to associate with a property where a true partnership can evolve, and both parties can build on the equity that each bring to the table."
Indeed, the soda's appearance during "90210" is part of a season-long agreement with the program. Most appearances take place when characters are visiting the program's "Peach Pit" restaurant, where a soda might naturally appear. In the case of the April 14 show, she added, the appearance was meant to spark interest in a contest in which fans can win a trip from Dr Pepper to the "90210" set by submitting videos about their idea of an "ultimate road trip."
In some cases, show producers carry some blame when products overwhelm the properties in which they appear. According to one broadcast-network executive familiar with product integrations in programs, the level of seamlessness in how an ad message is woven into plot or dialogue often hinges on how much time writers and producers take with the advertiser and its goals. "Sometimes, producers want to please a client, and they take the tactic of quantity vs. quality, and in the end, that's something that clients aren't necessarily thrilled with -- [and nor are] producers," the executive said.
Advertisers are poised to ask media outlets to cede more ground in the future, and so long as the economy is uncertain, media companies may indeed be willing to please. "When times are good, people basically say, 'I don't need to try it. I don't need to do that. And now we do, collectively," said GroupM's Mr. Tortorici. "We'll do some things that we wouldn't have done before that are occasionally brilliant, and occasionally stupid."