A Place for Everything

A couple of characters in the CBS sitcom Gary Unmarried rip into buckets of KFC’s grilled chicken — the takeout bags and logos clearly visible in the camera frame — and rave about how tender and delicious it all is. One of them, named Dennis, waxes especially lyrical about his takeout dinner, specifically the 11 herbs and spices that make up the chain’s famous secret recipe. “I wonder if it’s five herbs and six spices,” he says, “or 10 herbs and one amazing spice.”

The show’s star, Jay Mohr, makes a lighthearted crack and keeps wolfing down the food. All told, the chicken’s cameo lasted less than a minute (KFC got a brand shout-out later in the episode, too) — but in terms of dollars-and-cents impact, KFC just got a killer deal.

This prime-time brand placement aired last spring before an audience of 6.6 million. According to iTVX, a data service that measures brand integrations in TV shows, the exposure was worth no less than $514,259. That’s a very good deal indeed, considering that a 30-second ad in an episode of Gary Unmarried costs $79,986. KFC also bought traditional ads during the show, and iTVX’s final analysis gave the integration a score of 86 on a scale of 100.

Little wonder, then, that KFC was back on the show in January for the launch of its grilled wings, with Mohr’s on-screen friend describing the food as so fiery he felt like he was “sucking on a blowtorch.” The pain couldn’t have been that bad; both men ate all the chicken. This second integration didn’t quite back the wallop of the first, but it was still worth a cool $373,588, according to iTVX.

At a time when TV viewing is down, ad skipping via DVRs is up, and ad clutter is rampant, these scenarios are what some call the future of brand marketing on the first screen. Rather than just featuring a product in the background, advertisers and networks are making sure viewers won’t miss the integration by simultaneously running commercials and, at times, giving a brand a starring role. (Related: “Putting It In Context”)

Chances are, this wouldn’t be happening if the networks didn’t need the money nearly as much as the brands need the exposure. Hungry for ad dollars, the networks are courting these placement deals more than ever. In fact, integrations have been growing each year for nearly the last decade. According to Nielsen IAG, brand placements were up 3 percent in 2009 from the previous year on broadcast TV and 5 percent on cable. Last year alone, brand-placement activity jumped by 6 percent on broadcast and 9 percent on cable, comparing the first to fourth quarters.

There’s no question that product placement represents an opportunity for brands.
But how much of one? Perhaps at one time, it would have been enough to simply say that a breakfast cereal sitting atop the kitchen table of a sitcom set was getting 8 million pairs of eyeballs. But now, integrated products are becoming central to the stories they appear in; a Verizon Hub that Serena van der Woodsen uses to send status updates in Gossip Girl, for example. But it all begs the question: Just how good a deal is product placement, anyway?

Facing budget crunches and the need to account for every penny spent on marketing, brands that pay for placements naturally are looking for ways to measure the effectiveness of these deals. In response, a number of services trying to do just that have come and gone in recent years, with Nielsen (now combined with former competitor IAG), iTVX, Front Row Analytics, Millward Brown and a few others still standing — and each with its own evaluation criteria.

“There are more metrics, more ROI tools, more research,” said Gary Cogland, vp, business development at iTVX. “Plus, these deals are more highly managed than they’ve ever been before. Brands don’t send out props and hope for the best.”

The company, which churns out data for marketer clients, analyzes as many as 70 areas to come up with monetary value of a placement. Those include the ratings and target demographic of the show, the depth of integration, screen time, how the product is shown or handled, whether it’s in the foreground or background and if it fits with the scene. Researchers come up with dollar figures but, as Cogland says, “it’s a balance of art and science.”

Nielsen IAG, a syndicated service, polls nearly 6,000 viewers a day for their observations and opinions on advertising, interstitials and brand integrations. The company’s research has shown that a good placement can favorably affect consumers’ opinion of a brand. Significantly, however, Nielsen data also suggests that while a simple integration can be powerful thing, the impact is heightened if the placement is coupled with a traditional ad.

“We’ve seen several instances where an integration is superior in driving brand recall, while the 30-second spot is more effective in boosting purchase intent,” says Nielsen IAG svp, research and product development David Kaplan. “And the greatest impact is usually seen when the two are paired together — the integration often helps to predispose the viewer, making them more receptive to the traditional ad.”

While product placement has raised objections from some, TV producers are of the opinion that, in the future, the worlds of dramatic content and product placement will coexist.

One of them is Mark Koops, managing director at Reveille and executive producer of NBC’s The Biggest Loser, who also pioneered successful integrations with brands such as Subway, Brita, Wrigley and General Mills. “The integration business has definitely matured,” he says, “The fact is, you can tell a great story and meet the advertisers’ needs.”

Of course, the symbiosis works even better when the brand being placed complements the show’s theme. A can of cola can arguably make an appearance in most any program, but in the case of The Biggest Loser, Koops engineered a partnership with health-club chain 24 Hour Fitness that fully and thematically integrates brand with show. 24 Hour Fitness built and furnished the state-of-the-art gym on the Loser set and has been a key integrated brand in the show for nine seasons. Simultaneously, the out-of-show marketing has been nearly as extensive. The chain has used the show’s contestants in its promotions and the brand outfits every contestant with its branded Bodybugg, so she can calculate her calories in and out.

According to 24 Hour Fitness CMO Tony Wells, this multi-layered relationship has justified the investment. “We know it lifts our brand,” he says. “We have a solid baseline now to look at year-over-year results.”

Even though the ROI measurement remains a work in progress, and nobody claims to know the exact value of any of these deals, many brands have made the decision to seek deeper integrations with TV shows, inking deals for placements that go well beyond a branded cell phone that the leading man uses to call his co-star.

According to Alison Tarrant, evp, integrated sales and marketing at the CW network, brands increasingly “want to communicate their product attributes in the show, move the story along, and build a relationship with the audience through the content.”

What’s that mean, exactly? Tarrant and her team have structured multi-layered deals between Gossip Girl and Verizon and America’s Next Top Model and Cover Girl that have extended to contests, co-branded ads, vignettes and other original content for fans. While declining to give numeric results, Tarrant noted that both brands are longtime partners of the respective shows, returning season after season. “We’ve never heard, ‘We have to get this specific result,'” Tarrant says.

For their part, execs at NBC Universal’s USA Network — who’ve paired Hyundai with Burn Notice and Kia with Psych, among other deals — have similarly attempted to deepen relationships between audience and brand not just with in-episode placements, but with a host of promos that take place outside the confines of the episodes, like online games and sweepstakes. In Burn Notice, for example, character Fiona drives a Hyundai Genesis hybrid. On-air vignettes for the car use clips from the show and the Hyundai integration — and point to an online game called “Covert Ops,” which puts the player behind the wheel of a Genesis coupe.

Chris McCumber, the channel’s evp, marketing, digital and brand strategy, said brands are looking for marketing extensions that take the brand’s on-screen connection into more places. Those include the current Ford deal with new hit White Collar, where the car manufacturer has sponsored Web-based “character profiles” of the series stars. There’s also an online alt-reality game called “Chasing the Shadow” in which the player is an FBI agent whose assignment involves “driving” a Ford Taurus. “We’re moving toward content partnerships,” said Kevin McAuliffe, svp, integrated brand entertainment for Universal Television Networks, which includes USA. “The deals are more about marketing strategies with bigger rewards.”

Of course, not everyone out there sees such deals as a matter of rewards. The increase in product placement and integration of brand names into TV show plots has raised objections from both the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild, whose western chapter president has referred to as an “intrusive process [that] is getting more and more out of hand.” The FCC has also weighed in, calling some placements “particularly insidious because viewers often are unaware that someone is trying to influence, persuade, or market to them.”

Still, there’s some question as to whether today’s media-savvy audiences are truly unaware of the presence of brand integration and what it’s meant to accomplish. Nielsen IAG research, which regularly polls viewers on the shows they watched the night before, has found that even for integrations that seem heavy-handed or over-the-top, there’s little blowback on the brand. Viewers reported a negative opinion of a brand as a result of an integration only 2 percent of the time.

Internet chatter would seem to suggest otherwise, with bloggers and media watchers often calling out blatant placements. Some fans howled over a recent Bing integration into the CW’s Vampire Diaries — a full screen shot of a character typing “vampires” into the search engine. The show, a zeitgeisty hit, likely will have other Bing attachments, and network execs said they haven’t received any formal fan complaints.

So it’s likely that brand integrations are not going anywhere, especially when brand execs like John Haugen, vp, heath and wellness for General Mills, remain so happy with the deals. General Mills is one of the brands involved in a promo with The Biggest Loser in which consumers pledge to lose weight in the Pound for Pound Challenge, with marketers matching it with food donations to the country’s needy. Such cause-related deals clearly seem yet another place this trend is headed, and fans have pledged 4.2 million pounds so far. “It’s been incredibly powerful,” Haugen says. “It’s absolutely been a catalyst to drive awareness and engagement.”