Later, Patric Verrone, the president of the WGA, defined “branded entertainment” for the FCC. He emphasized that it involves not merely sponsored props but elaborate interweavings of brands into scripts, ads indistinguishable from the show itself. “Most Americans, like the proverbial frogs in the slowly boiling water, may not notice how prevalent it has become. Yet Nielsen Media Research tells us that product integration has occurred more than 4,000 times on network prime-time television in 2006.”
Since Verrone’s testimony, that proportion has risen vertiginously, jumping 39 percent in the first three months of this year versus the same time period last year. Within the top-ten broadcast-TV shows, advertisers paid for 26,000 product placements in 2007. And in June the WGA presented a startling proposal to the FCC, demanding that networks declare their sponsors in a banner at the bottom of the screen.
Many observers doubt the proposal will fly (the FCC hearings are now in session, with a decision possible as early as late October). That frog pot is already nearly boiling, after all; just a few more bubbles, and it’s over the top. And television integration is merely one ripple in a larger trend that also extends to “highbrow” art forms. In the recent revival of the musical Sweet Charity, the line “I’ll have a double Scotch on the rocks” was changed (with Neil Simon’s permission) to an order for “Cuervo Gran Centenario.” Damien Hirst designs for Levi’s. This summer, Sprint ran a satirical contest offering customers twenty bucks to “sell out” by integrating their own home-video YouTube clips.
Yet unlike music and movies, which have become expert at incorporating products (many musicians are practically brand magnets), television is still in the experimental stage—just starting to show results. Jak Severson, the managing partner for Madison Road, described the goal this way: “The audience cannot notice the integration but must remember it.”
Of course, open your eyes and the brands are right in front of you. Jack Bauer drives a Ford Expedition. Desperate Housewives’ Gabrielle sells the Buick LaCrosse. On Weeds, Nancy praises her Prius and sips from an “It’s a Grind” coffee cup. (Everyone on set drank “It’s a Grind,” so they made a deal with the company to provide fresh-brewed coffee.) In a crisis, 24’s Chloe shouts that their network can’t be under attack, since “the Cisco system is self-defending”; Cisco showcases the clip on its Website.
Sometimes these twists are clever, as when The Office’s Dwight took a job at Staples. And sometimes not—in The New Adventures of Old Christine, a character screamed in rage when a friend said he’d never heard of Home Depot: “It’s the biggest home-improvement store in the world,” he shouted. “It’s the greatest place on earth!”
Two years ago, Nielsen created a division devoted to tagging brands and testing for consumer response. Its researchers concluded that effective integrations combine several elements. The show and sponsor must be a perfect match. Characters should praise the brand’s features—and then an ad should appear at the commercial break, cementing the association. The goal is to “move the needle,” to get a measurable economic effect. Everyone in advertising knows the history of failed experiments (subliminal advertising, for one), so networks are eager to determine which integrations motivate, rather than annoy, consumers.
For like a wedding ring in a creamy Oreo, truly aggressive integrations can create queasy juxtapositions. On ABC’s All My Children, for example, a Campbell’s Soup deal rippled through Pine Valley like a tornado, if a tornado could be co-sponsored by Women’s Heart Health Month. Characters working for the show’s fictional cosmetic company strutted their stuff in a red-dress fashion show, with the real-life Campbell’s as a sponsor, plugging its heart-healthy line. And throughout the network’s daytime lineup, characters struggled with cardiac afflictions. (The View was involved in the project too, but no one there went quite that extra step.)
But then, this was a soap opera, contrived by definition. In the prime-time schedule and on cable, power can slide in many directions, depending on a show’s prestige and ratings—and lately, showrunners have begun to seize the reins, as with The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, recently quoted in Ad Age touting her ability to place brands. According to Marti Noxon, an executive producer of Private Practice, networks now introduce a list of “friendly” brands before the writing begins. There is even a subset of shows produced by the brands themselves, acting as their own studio, as with a series by Axe Body Wash that aired on Spike. For the viewer, there’s no way to discern what’s a prop, what’s a paid integration, and what’s just a writer freely referencing a brand, but that’s the point—after a while, suspicion contaminates every close-up.