You Be The Judge

When the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports brought the Willie Pep vs. Chalky White Featherweight Championship bout to thousands of American homes in 1944, the era of program sponsorship was born. And while network television thrived on sponsorships during its formative years—think Texaco Star Theater, Kraft Television Theatre—they fell out of favor by the mid-1960s. Relegated to public television during the next four decades, sponsorship deals, along with their sibling marketing concept, product placement, are making a comeback.

The flood of reality shows searching for sponsors is partly responsible for renewed interest. Advertisers’ fears that their marketing messages will be TiVo-ed by consumers is another factor. Whatever the reason for the concept’s newfound popularity, the fact that brands such as AT&T Wireless, Coca-Cola and Ford look to product placement in a show like American Idol is not surprising. What is surprising is how well it has worked. Of course, imitation is inevitable once a marketer succeeds, so a barrage of sponsorship deals have followed. Sponsorship and product-placement deals earned an estimated $3 billion last year, according to Medialab, a division of Mediaedge:cia in New York.

Whether it’s the blatant bright-red Coca-Cola cups on Idol or a more subtle placement, like Turkey Hill ice cream on Everybody Loves Raymond, Junior Mints on Seinfeld or Glacéau Vitaminwater on Scrubs, placement is everywhere.

This movement has been gaining momentum ever since E.T. began gathering Reese’s Pieces candy in the classic 1982 film. The fact that sales shot up more than 60 percent following the brand’s conspicuous appearance motivated advertisers to make their products stars of TV and film. More than two decades later, however, it seems they are doing so more feverishly.

Brandweek’s Kenneth Hein asked two industry experts to present their opinions on the pros and cons of the proliferation of sponsorships and product placement.It works for us

Steven Schiller, group director for Coke Classic, the Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, says the No. 1 soft drink’s relationship with American Idol has afforded it new opportunities to reach its target audience in ways that are relevant and entertaining.

From a viewership standpoint, the program is wildly successful—the show is seen by desirable targets, and it has got quite a strong reach, so it’s a very strong media buy.

Because of the scale of our relationship, there has been a lot of identification of Coke with that asset. It’s a pretty cool program, so it’s a good affiliation for the brand. You see our cups on the show. We provide beverages backstage to all of the people trying out. We have the red lounge, where you get behind-the-scenes footage. There are a lot of subtle Coca-Cola cues around that room. There are a number of billboards during the show. It’s been a great extension for the brand in the show.

Authenticity is an important buzzword. This kind of an affiliation ties in tightly with Coke’s “Real” efforts. These are real people who were nobodies yesterday, and today, millions and millions of people are watching and aspiring to be them. It is unfolding before viewers’ eyes, and we’re a part of all of that. We help provide an opportunity for these things to happen. It’s understood that sponsorships from brands like Coke help shows like Idol to happen. Consumers feel good about the brands in the affiliation that they’re showing.

TiVo is going to be whatever a force it’s going to be in the industry, but our relationship goes beyond just the advertising. There’s a connectivity you get just by being a part of the show. Whether you idolize the judges or not, or you like what they’re saying or not, they are an important part of the entertainment, of that experience, of how it unfolds. By having our beverages in front of them, as part of real people in real situations, it’s a great extension of the brand.

It isn’t just about people drinking Coke. It’s really about the environment they’re drinking it in and what that portrays. It is kind of a game show with reality thrown in. It’s real people mixed with celebrities that come in every week. All of those pieces are part of Coke’s heritage, so it’s really a great fit.

Sometimes as a marketer, I get antsy about the little things. Is the angle of the cup right? Is the logo coming through? But the realness of the way it unfolds is so much better than if I were to script it. You know someone’s going to pick up the cup to drink during the show. It’s there. It’s a little off center. At one point, one of the guys threw a beverage at Simon. I think the live part of it really plays into the realness of Coke.

It’s one thing to sponsor a show and get a mention and then just have a bunch of advertising. The Idol deal extends the reach, so your media value is far greater.

We’ve taken the relationship to a lot of places outside of TV. We have the ability to take our relationship to retail, so we give away tickets or posters. We’ve brought singers to the Coca-Cola 600 Race. That has expanded our reach and our connection to the property.

Not every show makes sense for a brand. You really want to present environments that make sense and connect. The way we like to think about these things is to put a diagram together that looks at the positioning of a show. Look at Idol, for example. Then look at what Coke represents. Then you overlap those two circles. What’s the intersection? This is one of those shows that is a great example of how we’re able to extend and bring our business to life.

Not every show presents that kind of an opportunity. When Coke, Fox and FremantleMedia started with this, I’m not sure we were all completely clear what we were creating or what we were setting out to do. But it became such a cultural phenomenon. It’s such a great fit. The fact that the partnership has continued and grown is a testament to what a great gamble this was.

It can be overdone

John Rash, svp/director of broadcast negotiations at Campbell Mithun in Minneapolis, warns that advertisers must not hit viewers over the head with blatant commercialism within TV shows and blockbuster movies; otherwise, they run the risk of damaging their brands as well as the entertainment vehicles they are part of.

There is a lot more product placement these days. The proliferation has come because of how competitive every product category is at this point. And it is also because of the fear of personal video recorders by a lot of advertisers.

For the programmers, there is a lot of money to be made off of this, so they’re increasingly willing to integrate product placement as part of their business model.

As with any advertising medium, clutter can exist within product placement as well. More importantly, there can be a negative backlash, because viewers expect product messages in commercial time slots in exchange for the bargain of the entertainment during the programming time slots. To the degree where the difference is overtly blurred, it can increase cynicism and decrease viewership. So everyone in the industry needs to proceed with caution.

If the product placement is unnatural to both the program and the product, and ultimately to the viewer, it could be a negative. Especially if it is to the degree that it may diminish a bond between the character and the audience. That’s a negative for TV and the advertising model.

Nevertheless, people are aware of product placement, and it hasn’t altered viewing patterns. If it can be seamlessly woven into a story line, that’s a positive. It is particularly useful if a character is demographically desirable to the company advertising a product or service.

Certain categories lend themselves very well to product placement. Everyday purchases can become part of characters’ fabric. For other categories, such as travel destinations, it would take a major plot change to become part of the program. Unlike 30-second spots where you can feature any product or service, product placement can be limited within the creative confines of a particular program or genre.

Audiences are aware and increasingly sophisticated about product placement. When it’s overtly done, it can be perceived as an intrusive negative as opposed to an organic positive. In the movie Spider-Man, Spider-Man webbed a can of Dr Pepper that was as large onscreen as a Mack truck. Any viewer could tell it was product placement.

You can’t overly reference a brand. Most people in everyday conversation refer to a product by its generic name. When products are talked about by characters, the discussion needs to be done in dialogue that is natural to both the characters and the viewers.

Audiences expect a degree of commercialism in reality shows. It goes with the territory. There isn’t a suspension of disbelief as within fictionalized dramatic or comedic characters. And so audiences are willing to accept Coca-Cola on American Idol and Chrysler Crossfire Roadster on The Apprentice, because in many ways those programs are in themselves commercialized for the pop industry and Donald Trump and his enterprises. If I was looking to escape into the world of Friends or Law & Order, then the commercial intrusion needs to be cautious, not overtly obvious.

Product placement can and will become more prominent as the economic stakes grow higher. The industry is closer to the beginning of this curve than the maturation of it. It’s an established dynamic that audiences and advertisers need to react to.

Advertisers want options, and this provides another option to display a message. But if it compromises the premise and the promise of why people come to an entertainment venue in the first place, it risks diminishing the very vehicle that makes product placement possible.

Kenneth Hein is a senior editor for Brandweek.