Don't Like Product Placement? Here's Why It's Your Fault

From Networks Loosening Rules to Consumers Zapping Ads, Content Can't Fend Off Invasion

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NEW YORK ( -- The Association of National Advertisers' annual TV & Everything Video Forum is supposed to be a place where marketers gather to figure out where the business of TV advertising is going. That quest has yet to be completed. But this year, advertisers had no trouble showing us where TV has already gone.

DiGiorno's pizza-servers deliver hot bread-and-cheese to the audience on CBS's 'People's Choice Awards.'
DiGiorno's pizza-servers deliver hot bread-and-cheese to the audience on CBS's 'People's Choice Awards.' Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty
Speaker after speaker lined up example after example of shockingly intrusive pacts that placed -- nay, shoved -- commercial messages deep into programming. Subway spokesman Jared Fogle told a couple of Sunday-football hosts about Subway low-fat sandwiches. Alec Baldwin sang the praises of Cisco teleconference equipment on "30 Rock." And the cast of Fox's "Glee" sent forth tens of pizza-servers to deliver hot bread-and-cheese from Kraft Foods' DiGiorno pizza into the audience on CBS's "People's Choice Awards" (We hope Fox, CBS and Procter & Gamble, producer of the program, were paid well for the concession.).

Taken individually, these moves from commercial break to in-program content seem fun, novel, even entertaining. Placed together in this fashion, however, the parade of in-show appearances by paying advertisers took on the form of something more pernicious.

Never has it been more clear that commercials and content are fast becoming one and the same, wholly indistinguishable from each other.

What's going on? We'll tell you:

Media outlets, roiled by the recession and changes in the TV business, have bent, even broken, many of their own rules

Big TV networks once thought of their programs as blue-chip real estate (of course, we're talking about practices after the heyday of "Texaco Star Theater" and the like). They weren't terribly eager to overtly insert products into many of their shows. They were afraid putting Lincoln-Mercury into an episode of, say, "Las Vegas," would tick off General Motors and Chrysler. They felt such stuff, if not handled properly, might cheapen their programming. When products did appear, they did so with great subtlety and with the barest nod to their existence, such as a "promotional consideration paid for by" in the credits.

When product placement gained more sway, particularly in the earlier part of this decade, the practice was believed to be better suited for sports telecasts and reality shows -- stuff that viewers didn't always hold sacrosanct. And when the technique gained more traction in comedies and dramas, networks certainly made sure the viewer wouldn't be distracted from the story, characters or dialogue.

So much has changed in just a short period of time. These days it's the stories, characters and dialogue that are being usurped by advertisers to gain notice from viewers. Stephen Colbert will hold forth for Doritos on Comedy Central. A character in "Chuck" will utter Subway's "$5 footlong" slogan during the show. Characters in the CW's "90210" sing the praises of Dr Pepper in such a way that it's clear to any intelligent fan that the dialogue is present not because the writers and producers felt it would advance a storyline or create an interesting moment, but because someone paid for it to be there.

Would any of this happen if the economy were faring better, TV networks didn't have so much digital competition, and DVRs weren't showing up in a third of U.S. homes? Hard to tell. But we're seeing the networks cede even more as time goes by. Now they're letting characters from their shows appear in traditional ads. In recent weeks, characters from NBC's "Chuck" began showing up in ads on the network for Honda, while the casts of ABC's "Ugly Betty" and "The Middle" have been set free to appear in ads from Nestle's Stouffer's on the Disney outlet.

At some point, ads and shows might blur so much that the notion of a "commercial break" becomes a silly, antiquated thing of the past.

Advertisers have had it with trying to game ad breaks

No matter how great anyone's 30-second commercial is, anyone with a digital video recorder and thumb on the remote can obliterate it, and there's really little defense. Why else have movie studios turned to placing the title of a movie and its opening date in the top third of the screen during ads? Because they hope to get the barest hint of info out even if consumers choose to fast-forward past the trailer.

Besides, why run ads when evidence suggests taking over the shows helps boost consumer recall? Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, told the ANA assemblage today that memorable product alliances with content such as Reese's Pieces' appearance in "E.T." or Junior Mints' role in an episode of "Seinfeld" were quite powerful. "The stickiness of those events is greater than advertising," he said.

To create such stuff, he said, advertisers must go beyond just plastering a logo on-screen or putting a sandwich in the background of a scene. Instead, he suggested, "we don't talk product placement." The idea is to weave marketing messages into the programs. Fans of NBC's "Biggest Loser" might recall that one episode featured the contestants walking from their base to one Subway, where they were able to buy snacks, then to another, where they'd be able to dine.

And Mark Stewart, VP-global media services at Kraft Foods, said the company was beginning to realize that blasting an ad out to the masses was less important than coming up with methods that made people react: "Exposure has absolutely nothing to do with engagement," he said.

People react to what happens in their favorite programs, while they actively try to avoid commercials. You figure out where the advertisers will want to be going forward.

We have no one to blame but ourselves

We say we hate ads. We say we love "American Idol," "24" or "The Closer." Yet we ignore the fact that the ads are the main reason we get to watch those shows for a relatively minimal cost (depending on your monthly cable nut).

So our burgeoning glee in being able to dispense with commercials is going to lead, oddly enough, to more commercials. Except this time, the ads will take place during our shows, not between segments of them. Ads are like weeds; you kill them in one place, and they take root in another.

Hope you enjoy a slew of promotional messages taking place during sports banter, or coming out of the mouths of Jack Bauer, Kate and Sawyer from "Lost" or the gang over at "CSI." Because in slaying the 30-second beast, consumers may have created another monster that won't be subdued easily, if ever.

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