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.

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

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.

There was no tag line for the online version, which used a news footage style and easily passed as an actual event. After allowing the clip to generate some online buzz, adds Ryan, the firm moved it to television, where it picked up a Gatorade tag line, identifying it as a commercial.

But this subtle form of messaging can occasionally produce troublesome results, Ryan adds.

He points to a campaign from Cardo Systems, a manufacturer of wireless headsets, that ran online this past summer. The firm produced a trio of videos made to appear homemade, in the style of YouTube, depicting cellphone signals powerful enough to pop corn kernels. The videos ignited a flurry of news coverage about the topic of possible brain damage from mobile-phone signals. The subtle message: Buy one of Cardo systems' headsets and keep your head a safe distance from those scary cellphone transmissions.

The blurring of story and selling concerns many media watchdogs, not to mention parents and educators.

"This selling of a consumer lifestyle can be very detrimental to the development of a healthy sense of self and the kind of values a society needs," says Naomi Johnson, assistant professor of communication studies at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. She points to the romance novels that inspired "Gossip Girl" and says that a significant shift from internal values, such as true love and romance, to possessions and shopping is evident.

The issues of manipulation and deception lie at the heart of many critics' concerns. Some, such as Professor Howard, say that while today's consumers are far savvier than previous generations, they aren't infallible and dislike being tricked or manipulated.

The most successful relationship advertisers can strike with consumers is the most overt, says Richard Notarianni, executive creative director of media for Euro RSCG, a New York ad agency.

He points to such cheeky moments as Tina Fey's smiling turn directly into the camera on her comedy, "30 Rock." In the middle of a scene, after she and costar Alec Baldwin discuss the value of Verizon cellphones, she makes an aside directly to the audience (and presumably, Verizon): "Can we have our money now?"

"Consumers will engage when they feel they are being treated honestly," Mr. Notarianni says.

A healthy cynicism about media messages is the best tool against manipulation, say most observers. Vigilance is doubly important when dealing with underage audiences, Ms. Johnson adds.

However, unlike some, she sees value in the shows as a teaching tool about what's important. After all, she says, "you don't come out of the womb asking for a Louis Vuitton handbag."

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