Embedded Ads in TV Stories

The fall television season is in full swing, and advertisers are competing to sell products on hit shows. No problem with that, but with more viewers tuning out commercials and the new digital recorders able to skip them automatically, what's an advertiser to do?

Why, they can just ask television studios to carefully display products as props on a set or have them mentioned by actors - whether it's Krispy Kreme doughnuts on "Sex and the City" or "American Idol" judges holding cups of Coke. NBC's reality show "The Restaurant" features what the network calls "organic product integration" - featuring Mitsubishi Motors, Coors Light, and American Express.

Product placement also has become plot placement. In ABC's "All My Children" soap opera, Revlon, the cosmetics company, "starred" opposite actress Susan Lucci's own cosmetics line on the series in 2002, with a deal that Revlon would be featured in a positive light.

Digital technology even allows products to be placed virtually in episodes after they're first shown - in syndication. One broker firm, PVI Virtual Media Services, tells potential advertisers that they can "get the exposure they want without interrupting the programming."

Such background branding is not new, of course. Who can watch pro baseball on TV without seeing ads behind home plate? But indirect selling by inserting products into a drama or a reality show can be annoying, distracting, and borders on subliminal advertising - something the Federal Communications Commission finds "contrary to the public interest."

Producers should not violate a viewer's expectation of a boundary between being entertained and being exploited. Without the usual clues of a "commercial break," a viewer is given no choice or warning. Young children, especially, already have a hard time distinguishing between a show and a commercial, and are vulnerable to such subtle commercial placements.

Consumer advocates are asking the federal government to require a "product placement disclosure" on TV shows as a way to prevent "embedded advertising." A line must be drawn between a sales pitch and a sales intrusion, between telling a good story and selling a product people may not want or don't want to see or hear about.

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