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What you see is what they want you to get

Ever since 'E.T.' landed, advertisers have been hungry to have their products 'placed' in films

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Others say that product placements are little more than commercials, and that they should be restricted – particularly in movies and TV aimed at kids.

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"In some ways, product placement is even stronger in kids programming," says Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters Media Foundation, a consumer-advocacy group in Vancouver, B.C. "Toys are placed in kids' programming in a way that's more blatant than what's seen with shows for adults."

A high-tech way to give old shows new ads

The VCR was bad enough for advertisers: Viewers could tape their favorite shows and fast-forward through commercials as they viewed the shows later. Advertisers began to search for other ways to publicize their products on TV.

Today's digital video recorders have made it even quicker and easier to skip over commercials at the touch of a button. In fact, as digital video recorders become more popular, some TV experts think companies will give up making commercials altogether. But they won't give up advertising their products on TV. Instead of making commercials that air in between programs, they will pay lots of money to ensure that their products appear on the TV programs themselves.

If people are zapping the commercials and watching the shows, the theory goes, then let's turn the shows themselves into commercials.

Sales of a company's product might go up and down depending on where and when (and with whom) it appears on TV. Clothesmakers in particular might spend substantial sums to guarantee that major characters on the most-watched TV programs wear their fashions.

Last year, NBC broadcast a commercial instructing "Will and Grace" viewers to go to the Polo website to buy a shirt worn by Grace in that evening's episode.

One week later, 3,000 people had bought the shirt. Polo did not pay extra for the ad, most likely because the company is partly owned by NBC.

If people start getting their Internet service through their TV cable, they might in the future be able to click on a character's fashionable shirt during a TV show and immediately find themselves at a fashion designer's website.

Programs that go into syndication (better known as reruns) might offer even more opportunities for product placement than the program did when it originally aired.

PVI Inc., in Princeton, N.J., offers to place a company's products into programs after the episodes have been filmed and aired for the first time.

That way, company executives can see the episode before they ask to let their product appear in it. They can also reach audiences in different regions of the country.

Using digital technology, PVI says it can make sure that viewers in, say, Chicago, see a character drink a can of a brand-name lemon-lime soda, while viewers in Los Angeles watch the same character in the same episode swig a particular brand of cola.

The same show could be broadcast overseas using a foreign soda.

"Imagine seeing a different box of cereal every time Jerry Seinfeld takes one off the shelf," says Cathy Wing, a media-education specialist with the Media Awareness Network in Ottawa, Ont.

All these "opportunities" could backfire if they distract viewers from enjoying a program. "You should not break the rhythm of a TV show or performance," says Jay May, president of Feature This!, a product-placement firm in Los Angeles, Calif. "TV is an art."