Prime-time shows write advertisers into the story lines

'Branded entertainment' has stars using products

July 04, 2004|By Leon Lazaroff | Leon Lazaroff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK - With its eye on The Learning Channel's popular Trading Spaces reality show, ABC television approached Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the summer of 2003 with an enticing proposal.

Rather than just inserting a few products into the new show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ABC was eager to follow an emerging model for advertising known as "branded entertainment."

"This was a case of working with an advertiser, understanding their needs, and then seeing whether that fit with a program we were looking to do," said Dan Longest, ABC's senior vice president for integrated marketing and promotion. "As a network, we're not in the business of just selling product placements. With Sears and Home Edition, we're selling their brand but we're also extending our own."

Companies now seek a consistent and recognizable presence in the shows themselves.

Jump-started on cable TV by programs such as Sex in the City, branded entertainment shaped Coca-Cola's sweeping involvement in American Idol and Ford Motor Co.'s 24, just two prime-time examples.

"Advertisers want to be in on the front end figuring out how best to integrate their product into programming," said Laura Caracciolo-Davis, director of Starcom Entertainment, a division of Publicis.

Even Nielsen Media Research has begun tracking product placements. In a study that began in September, Nielsen reports that about 101 programs per month shown during prime time on network television contained at least one product placement.

ABC and Sears agreed that the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based retailer would not only include its products in the hands of the show's host and main characters, but that Home Edition would become the center of one of its print, radio, online and in-store marketing campaigns.

"This is what we call disrupting viewers in a positive way, and the convergence of our brand with a makeover show for deserving people has really worked for us," Sears spokesman Ted McDougal said.

About the time that Sears was talking to ABC, TLC was negotiating with Home Depot about weaving its stores, salespeople and products into the script and scenery of Trading Spaces.

John Costello, Home Depot's head of marketing, said the home improvement show provided the perfect opportunity to feature the store's products in their intended environment.

"We want to reinforce the 30-second commercial, not replace it," Costello said. "That involves using a broad range of advertising in order to reach our customers in a variety of environments."

During the recent television advertising sales period known as the "upfronts," more advertisers were interested in the kind of deals formed by Sears and Home Depot, Longest said.

For good reason. Home Depot not only buys 30-second spots on Trading Spaces, it features personalities from the show in print and radio ads, holds in-store events with those personalities and has a contest to win a home makeover.

Not everyone is thrilled with the evolution of product placements into branded entertainment. Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, argues that just as the Federal Trade Commission requires marketers to post the word advertisement on print ads, corporate television sponsors should be required to do the same.

Product placement, in its most basic form, has been around since the earliest days of television. In the 1940s and 1950s, General Electric Co. and Philip Morris sponsored programs in exchange for giving their products a high profile within the show. For at least 20 years, soap operas and the film industry used placements to generate additional revenue.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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