RuPaul Dresses Up Product Placement

Reality shows like Drag Race, Top Chef, Project Runway cast brands in a starring role

Not long ago, brand integrations on television could be kind of a drag. To get noticed, marketers relied on standard, sometimes clumsy product placement tactics like putting digitally enhanced samples on an emcee’s desk or filling a sitcom family’s refrigerator with goods. 

Cover Photo: Mathu Andersen

Experts agree such ploys won’t cut it with today’s savvy viewers, who are tuning out forced attempts to link brands with their favorite shows. What’s more, the results of such placements can be difficult if not impossible to track, bedeviling brand managers and network execs hungry for consumer engagement data.

Welcome to the age of immersive integration, a sophisticated, highly creative hybrid that fuses content and commerce by making brands intrinsic elements of the drama, excitement and storyline of prime-time programs.

“The transition from product placement to product integration is an evolution driven by the need for brands to be more meaningful to consumers,” says Patricia Martin, founder and CEO at trend-tracking firm LitLamp Communications and an expert on entertainment and popular culture. More than ever, advertisers “need to win hearts and minds,” she says. “That’s why Hollywood and talent agents are diving deeper into brand integration as brands and agents look for alliances … rather than getting Kim Kardashian to wear your watch or tweet that she’s sipping your beverage.” 

Brands are placing big bets on initiatives designed to engage viewers who skip ads or are distracted from messages. “The typical viewer today is arguably not just watching TV—there is usually multitasking occurring and a second screen,” notes Mathew Curtis, assistant professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication. So brands use integrations to make sure their messages “follow” consumers and spur engagement across formats. “A brand wants to extend the viewer beyond the TV episode and onto another screen such as social media,” says Curtis. “This allows for more accurate data gathering.”

Effective integrations run the gamut from sponsored segments to elaborate, series-themed promotions. In some cases, the integrations don’t even appear during a program. “When integrations are done well, both the brand and show are elevated,” says Amy Wigler, svp, integrated marketing at Viacom’s MTV and Logo. “If it’s done right … you’re buying the credibility of the show, it’s transferred to the brand, and it furthers the storyline.”

The most important element, says Wigler, is that integrations play off program content in an organic, relevant way to enhance and extend the viewer experience. In best-case scenarios, these campaigns create good vibes and ultimately consumer loyalty.

Viva Las Vegas

The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority has rolled the dice on numerous immersive integrations. Working with its longtime agency R&R Partners, examples include ESPN SportsCenter’s “Overtime Guaranteed” segments and an episode of the USA Network sitcom Royal Pains that had the cast traveling to Sin City.

But the client’s most daring linkup may well be for RuPaul’s Drag Race. The marketer has hit paydirt partnering with the Logo channel’s smash-hit drag-queen competition show on inventive integrations that target the LGBT community.

“We came to [Logo] and said, ‘We can organically be part of this program,’” says R&R svp Fletcher Whitwell. The LVCVA’s integration in Drag Race’s Season 6 is a case in point. R&R produced humorous, Vegas-themed vignettes starring past show contestants leading straight into traditional 30-second tourism spots. The client also sponsored a “Win a Trip to Vegas” contest and hosted a gala wrap party at Vegas’ Tropicana hotel. Whitwell says the Drag Race integration yielded 4.2 million TV impressions, 850,000 online impressions and 52,000 contest entries.

Drag Race has done integrations with several brands, among them Absolut Vodka, which had a major presence in the show’s early seasons, including brand spokesman Jeffrey Moran’s appearance as a judge. Last year, the dating site Scruff sponsored the show’s Pit Crew, RuPaul’s hunky, scantily clad sidekicks.

“The integrations allow us to advertise things in a way that’s sort of a soft sell,” says RuPaul. “We do it in a way that’s clever, that doesn’t really offend the intelligence of the viewer. We have fun with it in a way that we know what we’re doing, they know what we’re doing—and we make it an adventure.”

Immersion at Sea

While integrations can work across different types of programming, experts say competition shows like Drag Race often work best. Viewers can get heavily invested in such series, rooting for their favorite players, and that can strengthen the bond with sponsors whose products and services play into the competitions. And it’s understood that contestants compete for cash or prizes, so the balance between content and commerce feels less strained than in scripted fare.

“Reality shows are great for showcasing a product’s competence,” says pop culture watcher Martin. “Shows like Top Chef reveal what contestants are made of under pressure. It’s make or break. If you have a proven, high-performance brand, it’s a great context to demonstrate the product’s most reliable traits.”

Judy Austin, associate professor of communication at Boston University, agrees, adding that Top Chef is an especially appealing venue for integration because it lets viewers “see brands in action” and think about how they might use ingredients, utensils and such in their own lives.

The Bravo cooking competition, returning this fall for its 12th season, is a virtual bouillabaisse of integration.

Whole Foods and Toyota have long appeared in significant roles, with ConAgra, Chase and others enjoying an in-show presence. “We’re looking at how we can connect the brand to the consumer,” says Jamie Cutburth, svp, partnership marketing for NBCUniversal’s Bravo and Oxygen.

That connection can sometimes become literal—and bring the integration process full circle. Take the 10th season, when ConAgra challenged contestants to create a dish that would be rolled out as part of its Healthy Choice line. Kristen Kish, the ultimate season champ, won that challenge with her recipe for Crustless Chicken Pot Pie, which went to market.

Last year’s tie-in with Kraft Recipe Makers extended the series and brand experience in a different way.

Starcom MediaVest Group unit ZeroDot fashioned a digital experience riffing on those home versions of TV game shows. Dubbed Top Chef Home Edition, the effort allowed fans to compete against each other in online cooking challenges. “Chef-testants” appeared in Bravo spots promoting the game. “It gave people a chance to experience what they’ve been watching,” says Jonathan Hoffman, president of ZeroDot.

Though this particular integration did not actually appear on the show, it nonetheless leveraged Top Chef to drive up brand awareness and favorability numbers for Recipe Masters by 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

The series’ relationship with Celebrity Cruises mixes both in-show and off-the-air components.

Season 10’s penultimate episode saw chef-testants tasked with challenges aboard an Alaskan cruise that showcased Celebrity’s amenities. Last summer, leading into Season 11, Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio and Gail Simmons co-hosted a voyage from Miami to Mexico. On the trip, guests mingled with chef-testants and participated in “quick-fire” cooking challenges and culinary demonstrations. And just a few weeks back, Top Chef at Sea set sail, offering a yearlong cruising experience on 10 Celebrity ships featuring dining, demonstrations and competitions themed around the TV show.

Integrations, Always in Fashion

Lifetime’s iconic fashion competition Project Runway, now in its 13th season, continues to win praise from experts for its longtime commitment to stylish integrations that fit seamlessly into the show’s format.

The Aldo Accessories Wall appears in the contestants’ workshop during every episode, while Mary Kay sponsors the makeup studio where models prep before heading to the runway.

“We seek to create a 360-degree experience for our customers,” says Candida Golia, media manager at Aldo. “After an episode airs, viewers can visit a microsite that includes a customer contest, provides episode recaps and allows viewers to shop the wall. Customers can also visit one of our stores, where they will find a dedicated section of Project Runway styles that were just featured on the show. We also engage our community through virtual viewing parties by live tweeting during each episode.”

Mary Kay’s integration is also multifaceted, featuring online components and promotional threads.

“This was the best opportunity for us to build a fully integrated, multimedia program around a property that was brand elevating,” says Kim Sater, Mary Kay’s director of U.S. consumer marketing. “Between the Fan Favorite viewer voting, the Runway to Your Way looks and all the additional content we have created, there are so many ways for viewers and our sales force to become involved.”

The smart money has such integrations becoming more sophisticated, and common. And yet, they won’t always work. “You can’t do this everywhere,” as Lifetime’s evp of national ad sales Amy Baker points out. To be certain, these campaigns can be tough to pull off, demanding cooperation across multiple parties and requiring an organic hook to the shows in question.

To make them work, marketers must take a holistic approach to integrations, observers say. “The key is to think blueprint, not tool,” advises Martin.

Otherwise, brands risk having consumers tune out.

@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.