Ads you can't subtract
LOS ANGELES — Come February, Heineken beer will have a whole new profile on network TV.
Viewers who tune into the so-called sixth network, UPN, will find that it's a Heineken world - in more ways than one. Not only is the beer manufacturer the sole sponsor of the evening's prime-time lineup, but the contract the company struck with the network calls for product placement in the evening's half-hour sitcoms. Age-appropriate useage only, say network executives.
Over on CBS, as "Survivor: The Australian Outback" rolls out, expect to see a raft of new products discreetly placed in one of the most desolate corners of this planet. Increasingly, familiar products are popping up in the hands, kitchens, and favorite hangouts of most of television's favorite stars.
There's a good reason for this growing onslaught of in-show hucksterism. "It's an inevitability," says media guru Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.
"Madison Avenue is scurrying around for some solution to the insoluble problem of technology which will soon make it unnecessary to sit through a commercial.
The idea that you'll have a captive audience to sit through your commercial spot will go the way of the Betamax, and they're looking for a way to solve the problem." The best way, he adds, is to get the product directly in the show.
Of course, product placement isn't new - Phillip Morris paid Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz $30,000 a week to light up on their show. But the 1950s quiz-show scandals put a pall on the direct product tie-ins with stars for decades. As competition for eyeballs has snowballed, however, the resistance has begun to crumble.
"Very soon, we're going to get to a point where technology will make it so easy to move merchandise through the television landscape and so difficult to do it an old fashioned, polite way...," says Thompson. "It's going to be a fully synergized situation.
Easier said than done, say some observers.
"There is a backlash against advertising," says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader- sponsored watchdog group devoted to tracking the commercialization of American culture. He points to recent Roper polls that show a steady increase in national concern over the negative impact of growing commercialization in our culture. "It is predictable that advertisers have to find new ways to worm their way into our minds," he adds.
Networks understand this. "We don't want to turn off our audiences," says Tom Nunan, UPN's president of entertainment. "We value our relationship with our viewers." Then, there are the producers and writers who create the shows that appear on the networks. "We don't want to alienate our studio partners, either," says Mr. Nunan. It was Heineken that struck the deal with the network, which in turn had to sell the idea to the studios that create the UPN shows.
While writers bristle at the suggestion that product placement might drive their stories, most are fairly realistic about the business. "If someone wants to step up and pay for my show, it doesn't bother me to find a way to put their product in my show," says Bruce Helford, executive producer of "The Drew Carey Show." It would have to be monitored, he says.
In fact, he says, he is considering having Carey deliver live product pitches on the show's next live broadcast, much as early TV stars such as Steve Allen and even Johnny Carson did. Mr. Helford makes an additional point.
"Using real products certainly makes the shows more realistic, more like real life," he says. After all, who uses cereal boxes that say, "flakes," or juice containers that only say "juice?"
This reality factor is the bread and butter of a product-placement industry that has seen demand for its services up by some 30 percent over the past decade. "Product placement is definitely the way to reach the consumer," says Linda Swick, president of International Promotions, one of the oldest product-placement companies in Hollywood.
"The marketing executives, the brand managers, the ad executives, they're all making product placement part of their pitch." Much to the detriment of the overall culture, say media observers. "It used to be that TV shows only had to provide an amenable environment for commercials," says media maven Thompson.
"Now, it will have to provide the medium itself. Whatever art is there will become host to the parasite of commercials." This is what critic Ruskin calls, 'ad creep.' "This will turn TV programs into long, seamless commercials with a couple of scenes in between," he adds.
Industry veteran Dean Valentine, formerly of Walt Disney Television, Touchstone Television, and Walt Disney TV Animation, and now president and CEO at UPN, has another perspective on the cultural response to commercials:
"People like commercials. "I know they say they don't, but I believe they have an affection for them. Commercials tell them what's new in the world and people like to keep up."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society