Why Gadgets Win the Product-Placement War

Tuning In: Brian Steinberg on the TV Season and Changes to the TV Business

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Hawaii Five-oooh!: The appearance of Microsoft's Bing search engine on the screen of an LG Electronics mobile device during this week's "Hawaii Five-0" delivers something other than an answer to a character's query. Instead, it's a sign of the advantage makers of tech gear and web services are enjoying over marketers of more traditional goods when it comes to placing products in TV shows.

We all know the trouble that comes with product placement. If the car, soda can or sandwich placed in the scene is given too much attention, viewers get distracted and then grow upset their show has been interrupted by commercial concerns. At the same time, more advertisers are insisting on using this technique so they can get their messages in the one on-screen element that viewers don't skip past with a DVR -- the show itself.

In recent years, the intrusion has burrowed deeper into programming real estate, as anyone who saw Kraft's DiGiorno pizzas being handed out on the most recent airing of "The People's Choice Awards" can tell you. The practice has even crept into dialogue. It's not uncommon to watch an episode of NBC's "Chuck" and hear the characters give deliberate shout-outs to Toyota and Subway in a display that gives at least this viewer the unsettling feeling of hearing subliminal messages paid for by marketers when the original objective was just to be entertained.

Kono does a mobile search using Bing on 'Hawaii Five-0.'
Kono does a mobile search using Bing on 'Hawaii Five-0.' Credit: CBS
Placements of tech gear, however, seem less jarring. It's not unreasonable to think that actress Grace Park's "Kono" on "Five-0" might do a mobile search in the course of her surveillance duties. Yes, the lingering shot on her using Bing may raise an eyebrow, but not in the way that the "Captain Awesome" character on "Chuck" does by emphasizing the safety features of the Toyota Sienna. Likewise, while the Subway shout-outs on "Chuck" distract, the appearance of a Microsoft Windows logo on a character's laptop screen in the same episode does not.

This trend started to gain steam when Verizon Wireless won the coveted privilege of supplying all the characters' mobile devices in the first season of "Gossip Girl" on the CW in 2007 -- and now it's growing exponentially as more consumers gain access to iPads, iPods, BlackBerries, Zunes, Torches, Sidekicks and whatever else is out there.

There's often little reason for us to grab a can of Coke off a table in mid-sentence, but we're constantly reaching for our mobile devices and the services that come packaged with them. Advertisers are seizing on this new behavior to seize more space in our programs -- and they may have more success in pulling it off than in the past.


Crowing about Conan: See, we told you! Despite receiving multiple comments disparaging our take on Conan O' Brien's debut Monday, The New York Times echoes our sentiments today. Mr. O' Brien's talent notwithstanding, it's a little odd to hear him continue to bemoan his "fall" to cable from NBC.

The NYT's Alessandra Stanley feels similarly: "The show is called 'Conan,'" she wrote, "but it felt at times as if it should have been labeled 'I'm Not Jay .'" Last night, Mr. O' Brien toned down the anti-Peacock rhetoric, though his woe-is-me shenanigans continue. One sketch involved him trying to find out how TBS's standards differ from those of NBC. On TBS, we find, Conan can wear backless pants.

In the end, little of this matters. "Conan" beat both David Letterman and Jay Leno on Monday, and won an audience with a median age of 30. If he can keep this up, he'll be successful -- and have to find a new shtick.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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