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Product Integration: The Elusive Art of Buying Audiences

If you watched last year’s season of The Contender—a boxing reality TV series where prize fighters get a chance to punch in the big ring at Caesar’s Palace for one million dollars—do you know what happened an average of 500 times per episode?

“Time for a skill-testing question...”

No, that wasn't the number of punches and jabs thrown. Instead, it was the number of times you the viewer were subjected to product placements while waiting to see whom the boxing champ would be. 500 separate occurrences of intentional advertising in one episode!

According to product placement guru Jeff Greenfield (a guy who plays matchmaker between media projects and companies looking to place products) and Nielsen Media Research, The Contender was the number one show for product placements during 2005. In that same year American Idol claimed the second place product placement prize, with 83 per episode. Extreme Makeover takes third with a comparative paltry 45 per show. (For more info, check his site at http://www.productplacement.biz.)

And you thought your TiVo was skipping the commercials...

Now we live in a time beyond the VCR, when digital video recorders, and countless other distractions are making the 30 second commercial appear more like a dinosaur that has lost its growl. Desperate to reach audiences and keep dollars flowing, broadcasters (along with movie producers and even video game creators) are being lured into product placements at a frantic pace that requires another look at this trend, which I first spoke of two years ago [http://www.parentstv.org/ptc/publications/rgcolumns/2004/0406.asp].

A stop by another web site that specializes in putting products into movies, movieplacement.com, reveals how big this advertising method is becoming. Quoting their home page: "Product Placement is the most cost effective way to get worldwide advertising for your brand. A new study by PQ Media of Stamford, Conn., estimates that $4.25 billion will be spent on product placements in 2005 -- a 23% increase over 2004's estimated $3.5 billion in placements. Some 57% of that will go to TV placements."

From the United States to Russia (if you can read the language, check http://www.product-placement.ru), placing products into all forms of media is once again the hottest way to sell, sell, sell. I say "once again" because the earliest days of television and radio were almost pure product placements, where sponsors actually owned the show. (For a great story of how well it worked for Pepsodent and Bob Hope, read the page at this link: http://www.frugalfun.com/bobhopeadv.html)

But there is a major difference between those "hit you over the head" advertising comments in the early days of television, and the way products are being pushed in much of today's media. Integration, is the new goal, not placement. And for children, and even teens, it's going to be more difficult than ever to know when the program has stopped and the pitch has begun.

There was a time when it was thought that advertising to children was a serious business that required regulation. In the early 1970s, laws were passed requiring broadcasters to begin every commercial break with a "we'll be right back after these commercial messages" line. It was hoped the sentence would send a signal to the glued eyeballs that their favorite program was disappearing and they were about to be sold on a sugary breakfast cereal.

Eager marketers, wanting to think outside of the commercial break, came up with new techniques. Over the past years, it has become common to see entire cartoons modeled after a particular toy or other product. Now, television aimed at children is threatened to become a vast wasteland that looks similar to a highway surrounded by billboards.

A couple of years ago, What I Like About You (a now defunct television show targeting teen audiences) featured product integration that was leading-edge creativity. In one episode, characters competed to appear on a shampoo commercial. During the commercial break, the actual commercial ran that viewers had been anticipating during the show. Other episodes featured ongoing referrals to a popular restaurant, and one character even had a job working there.

This type of marketing to younger audiences is even more tempting due to past successes in this age category. According to movieplacement.com, the acclaimed Pixar movie Toy Story helped Etch-A-Sketch sales increase by 4,500%, Mr. Potato Head by 800%, and Slinkys--which had been out of business for 10 years prior to the movie--sold $27 million of the toys since the film was made. E.T., which many view as a pioneer in product integration, boosted Reeces Pieces into an 80% increase.

These young viewers are some of the most difficult to reach, explaining why even delightfully innocent movies like Curious George are quietly promoting Dole pineapple and other items within the film.

Parents concerned about having their children immersed in a non-stop marketing spiral will want to ensure they help kids recognize the inclusion of popular products in their favorite TV shows and movies are not by accident. Help to make them aware that their favorite celebrities are being paid to show off that can of cola. You may even want to turn it into a game, where you encourage your family to identify all of the "hidden" advertisements within a television episode, movie or video game. Afterwards, talk to your children about the products and services they found, and why they think they were included. This exercise will help them understand when and how they are being sold to and allow them to dis-integrate these stealth advertising techniques.

For some interesting news stories on how product placements and integration are changing media industries, check this link: http://www.1stapproach.com/news.html

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