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Advertisers up the ante as products become TV plots

Products no longer simply appear in shows – they're becoming important parts of the plot, too.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2008

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Forget "product placement" – that's so 20th century. Even "product integration" is passé.

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Advertisers these days want to do far more than just place BMWs, Manolo Blahnik shoes, and other luxury items within reach of favorite TV and movie characters. They want to create entire worlds of consumption. For instance:

CW Television Network's "Gossip Girl" features characters whose lifestyles are driven by the Prada bags they want and the La Perla lingerie the highly sexualized characters need.

•Actresses in "Roommates," a MySpace TV Web series, use their characters' online profiles to chat with fans and dish out information about their clothing and other products as well as advice on where to buy them.

These are the heady days of "brand integration" and "immersive" commercial environments.

"We are in an increasingly commercialized culture," says David Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, who points out that as consumers develop more tools to screen out traditional ads, such as 30-second TV spots, advertisers must get more subtle and innovative. The result? "Less story and more push to consume," he says.

This also leads to "more potential for manipulation," says David Howard, a marketing professor at Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

The trend is expected to grow. Global ad dollars spent on product placement of all kinds will expand from $3 billion in 2006 to $5.6 billion by 2010, according to PQ Media. A July poll in the trade magazine Ad Age found that 60 percent of TV and movie audiences say they are influenced by product placements.

While audiences are migrating to many new-media gadgets and outlets, such as iPods, video games, and even the displays on gas pumps, advertisers still depend on the content and large audiences that TV delivers.

"Television is sooo not dead," says Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer at Element 79, a Chicago-based ad agency. All that is going on, he says, "is a diversification of screens."

In the summer, for example, Mr. Ryan's firm created "Ball Girl," a video showing a girl in the audience leaping to her feet to make a spectacular catch at a minor-league baseball game. As she returned to her seat, the camera casually spied a Gatorade bottle next to her.