Nielsen plumbs product placement

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Following the release of its first full-season TV product-placement tracking report, Nielsen Media Research plans to go deeper into the world of product placement.

Nielsen plans to expand its initial product-placement tracking system into a broader monitoring service that allows TV network executives to know and study details of all deals that result in products being shown in their programming.

It's less certain, however, that producers will want to divulge such details. "I've haven't heard anything about it," says Ben Silverman, executive producer of "The Restaurant" and founder of production company Reveille. "I find it a little strange. I'm not quite clear what they're looking to do."

The Nielsen tracking service started Sept. 5, 2003, with Nielsen analysts taping and watching every prime-time show on the broadcast networks. The tracking service data is currently bought only by Zenith Optimedia Group, says Dave Harkness, senior VP-strategy and development at VNU Media Measurement and Information Group, Nielsen's parent.

He says the company is negotiating to sell the service to several networks, but named none. Leslie Moonves, chairman of Viacom's CBS, says his network is looking at it.

"The more information we have, the better we like it," he says. "Our goal is to make the advertisers happy so that products get noticed."

Many brands end up in TV shows via prop masters and producers, who negotiate placements to cut production costs. Nielsen is investigating ways of systematically identifying placements that are the result of such barters, as well as those that are paid for directly through the networks.

Mr. Harkness says ultimately the new service can offer networks a chance to quantify and charge for all those casual product appearances.

"We're trying to get that information directly from the producers," he says. "This is the first opportunity the networks have had to get some understanding of product placement. ... Now they have a way of understanding and linking [it] with the advertising sold in the programming."

In its first full season report, the new Nielsen system ranked Coca-Cola Co. as the champion of product inclusions. Coca-Cola products or mentions appeared 2,260 times, followed by Nike apparel products, which appeared 1,048 times.

A spokesman for Coca-Cola Co. says: "Product placement is normally one component of an overall integrated marketing initiative, as is very clearly the case with Coca-Cola and `American Idol.' That said, we are very interested in new tools that help us measure not only exposure, but impact of product placement."

`Über' placement

Pepsi, too, is interested in the technology. "We've been placing products in entertainment for 20 years and we're now looking at uber-product-placement with branded content that we create," says a Pepsi-Cola North America spokesman, who acknowledged reports that Pepsi would be in NBC's "The Apprentice" this season. Nielsen June data, released with the full-season report, showed Pepsi was the most-seen brand that month, followed by Nike.

Nielsen is also set to expand the survey beyond broadcast network prime time. The measurement firm is planning to begin surveying shows on "six to 10" unidentified "obvious players" among cable networks, says Mr. Harkness.

Makeover shows on networks such as Discovery's TLC carry a number of placements, though Discovery Networks President of Ad Sales Joe Abruzzese says he is looking at alternatives to Nielsen's service. "I think the industry is headed in this direction, so we will proceed with some kind of measurement service," says Mr. Abruzzese.

Guy McCarter, director of entertainment and marketing at Omnicom Group's OMD, said the value of the Nielsen data is really dependent on whether it reveals the extent of the placement.

"Was the can of Pepsi on the desk, or was it talked about?" he wonders.

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