Monday, March 22, 2010

Product Placement Gives Cost Effective Option to Advertisers and Networks

Product placement has been a blessing as well as a curse for the entertainment industry as it both financed and controlled television programming. Over the years the advertisers role has changed from sole sponsorship of individual programs to rotating commercials that have little or no connection to specific programs. Instead of content, advertisers use ratings as the yardstick as the deciding factor as to where to spend their marketing budget. However there is a third option available that would be advantageous to both program producers and advertisers. Products properly embedded into programs will not only positively market products and services at a lower cost, but will also subsidize production budgets thereby allowing the executive producers and the networks to air a higher quality of scripted programming.

In the early years of television, advertisers sponsored individual shows. The program quality and the product reputation were intertwined. The mutual branding gave the sponsor more control over the content of the program and to some extent the network that aired it. Texaco Star Theatre is an example of successful product sponsorship. It was a comedy-variety show that originated on radio in 1938; however, NBC picked up it up the June of 1948. Not only was the brand name featured in the show title, but Texaco featured its products and services throughout the show. It was blatant in your face promotion, but it was also done within the context of the show format. Texaco was taking credit for presenting good entertainment. In 1953 Texaco dropped its sponsorship, but Buick picked it up, changing the name of the show to The Buick-Berle Show. In 1954, the name was changed to The Milton Berle Show, which it was known by until it ended in 1956. Buick changed its sponsorship at the beginning of 1955-1956 season to the Jackie Gleason Show. In both cases, Texaco and Buick paid production cost to insure their products left a lasting positive impression on the viewers by embedding their products within the context of the entertainment.

Throughout the decades, single sponsorship dwindle to the point that it is currently nonexistent. It has been replaced by commercial breaks, making the advertising completely separate from the entertainment. Although initially the change has made it less costly for advertisers, it has also created a competition for placement for shows with higher ratings. With the diversity of products and the time limitation, networks and local stations not only charge on a sliding scale according to the ratings, but they no longer guarantee exclusivity during commercial breaks. In the current system, there is virtually no connection between the programming and the products. Sponsors buy ratings and demographics, nothing more.

Each system had both benefits and pitfalls. Embedding products takes advantage of the positive aspects television marketing, while eliminating most of the drawbacks. Implanting products within the entertainment will once again blurred the lines between content and advertising, but it will also more honestly reflected not only the product but its use in real life. By appropriately embedding the products within the context of action, the show looks and feels more realistic. Instead of drinking no named sodas, the characters would openly drink Coke, Pepsi, or another name brand. While continuing with the natural flow of the plot, characters could be shown shopping or dining at specific national chains. Nothing in the conversation would be directly promote anything, yet the natural movement of the camera would catch the distinctive logos of both the individual products or the national chain. If the characters needed to buy a coffee pot, they could be seen going into Walmart, walking through the store and choosing to buy a Mr. Coffee. The conversation would be about topics which furthered the plot until it came to deciding which Mr. Coffee they were going to buy. Once the decision was made, they would revert back to plot developing topics. It would be natural and reflect a real life situation.

In addition, by making the product or business a natural part of the scene, it not becomes an effective marketing tool, but also it becomes permanently embedded into the episode. No matter what time slot, network or products slotted for the official commercial breaks, every time that episode airs the embedded products will once again be marketed without any extra cost to the sponsors.

The major pitfall is if the product doesn’t fit the situation, character or plot. If it is forced into the program instead of seamlessly fitting into the scene, it will not only distract the viewer from the program but also create negative backlash for the product and the sponsor. One soap opera placed a woman’s magazine into the action of a scene. A male character was injured and a female friend gave him a copy of the women’s magazine to read to help pass the time. The two of them proceeded to spend time talking about the benefits of the magazine. If it had been done properly in the context of character and the situation, it could have been very effective. However, instead of being an effective marketing tool it came off as a badly written ad. The situation would have worked for another product such as the TV Guide. The female friend could have given him a copy as a way of him finding programming to keep his mind occupied while he recuperated. In addition, the writers could have easily added dialogue to generalize about the information found in the articles, which would have kept the piece timeless. As long as the dialogue was kept short and within the framework of the situation, scene would have been effective.

Products could be embedded at two levels: episodic and series. The only difference between the two would be the length of service of the product in the series. Episodic products would be short term, being found in one or two episodes, while series products would run an entire season or as long as the series aired. Whether short term or long, the effectiveness will depend solely on the how well the product fits into the plot. The key is to write in the product without over-shadowing the entertainment or slowing down the plot development. Clever blocking of both the actors and camera angles would eliminate the need of promotional dialogue, thereby limiting the negative impact of over exposing the products.

The executive producers and writers of Operation Home Base intend to embed both series and episodic products within their new military series. In the style of MASH and NCIS, Operation Home Base has a strong ensemble cast that will appeal to a broad demographic base that includes gender, ages, and ethnicity.  MASH focused on the effects of war and NCIS concentrates on  criminal situations involving military personnel. OHB will incorporate both while revealing the challenges military families face daily along with the conflicts that originate from involvement with civilians.  OHB could be best described as a family of man drama, which will show the best and worst of the human condition, whose broad base appeal will give it nearly unlimited product placement potential.

Who is responsible for buying the donuts will be one of the long standing jokes among the characters on Operation Home Base. It would be very easy to promote Dunkin Donuts within the show by simply showing the logo on the box as the characters choose their favorites. Non verbal cues such as seeing the character enjoying the donuts or the multiple empty donut boxes in the trash would promote product more than any dialogue that could be written. In addition, if they are lucky enough to sign on Tom Selleck to play the part of Deek, orange juice will be added to the morning staff meetings along with the coffee, tying in OHB to Selleck’s voice overs for Florida orange juice. In addition to the civilian promotion, OHB will show the sense of belonging and personal satisfaction to be gained through service in the military, not through heavy handed ads, but revealing what it means to be military through those who have lived the life.

Short term promotion will be handled with equal grace. The fundraising episode will not only help raise awareness for therapy dogs, but it will also be a fabulous opportunity to promote restaurants, musical groups, soft drinks, and real-life veteran’s organizations. Stella’s engagement presents a chance to showcase the rings from Kay Jeweler or another national chain as the couple chooses their rings.

As a non-profit agency, which helps military personnel and their dependants during crisis situations, there will be limitless opportunities to discreetly promote products and services. Whether it is home repair, telephone service, or in the case of the pilot episode, emergency support in the form of prepaid charge cards after a family who looses everything to a home fire, OHB will be able to effectively promote a diverse number products and services, while still being able to produce quality entertainment.. Sponsors will not only gain effective marketing for their products, but they will also gain the additional benefit of showing public support for the military, veterans and their families.

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