We all know about product placement as a way to cut through the ad clutter and still enable content providers to attract marketers. This is when they embed the product into the actual show, like Coke strategically placing branded cups at the judges’ table on American Idol or Cisco’s video conferencing equipment playing a crucial storyline role on CSI. The other day, I even saw one of the most blatant (and frankly, tacky) ones on Bones: two female characters are driving along and the passenger says to the driver, “Do you have kids?” The driver says no, and the passenger asks her why she has a Minivan. The driver says, (paraphrasing) “Oh, I love my Sienna. First of all, I’m an artist so there’s room for all my stuff. And I don’t even have to struggle with parallel parking anymore, which I hate.” I’m sure the show’s writers cringed and felt like they needed a shower to wipe the cheesiness off of them after writing those lines.
But I’m okay with product placement if it allows us to enjoy good content without having to pay a lot for it. Subsidizing content development with advertising is a better alternative to me – I always find it funny that people want something for nothing in this world. And seriously, product placement goes way back: remember, “soap operas” are so named because of the early days when soap and detergent companies would sponsor them.
But the newest thing is “behavior placement:’” sending softer messages through TV content so that advertisers can then have a more receptive audience to their message. This WSJ article talks about how NBC Universal plans a week of programming across their networks that emphasizes healthy eating and exercise or environmental responsibility and the shows’ storylines address this behavior in some way. For example, “The Office” had a storyline about Dwight being a “Recyclops” superhero as he humorously and overzealously encouraged the office to recycle. A Telemundo show had a character whose job was to recruit people for the Census – an important message to the Latino community, which is usually undercounted. And “Top Chef” promoted buying locally grown foods by having competing chefs prepare a meal using only organic and local produce and ingredients. Some behavior placements are more subtle, as when a plotline on NBC’s new show, “Trauma” involved someone reporting an emergency from their hybrid vehicle or when Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker” featured a client who owned an eco-friendly clothing line.
As NBC Universal coordinates these themes across their shows during certain time periods (like Green Week), they are then able to attract advertisers who benefit from those behaviors. For example, Soy Joy, a health food manufacturer, or carmakers pushing Hybrids. They can even offer special ads with characters from the shows, as Kenneth the page from “30 Rock” did for Pepsi’s Sun Chips brand who had just launched a compostable bag: they produced a skit with him that will run during a commercial break.
The networks know they can’t be too pushy or preachy or they risk alienating their audience. And if the behavior makes sense in context and maintains the show’s flow and integrity, that is cool with me. “The Office” producers say they had been thinking about doing this with Dwight’s character even before the network came to them and ordered “an environmental storyline.” But what are your thoughts? Would you rather pay more for programming development devoid of such tactics? Or are you fine with a few ad messages here and there if it results in quality programming at a decent price for you?