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.