Sunday, January 18, 2009

A good weekend for product placement

The three of us spent two long days at the internationally famous Santa Clara Swim Center, killing time while waiting for my daughter to swim seven races. As with swim parents everywhere, we came home beat, wanting to vegetate, which for our generation means watching some mindless television.

Tonight it was Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where host Ty Pennington gets the neighbors amp’d up for when a lucky family returns home to see their new mansion, in this case for a family of five in central Pennsylvania.

As always EMHE has a heavy dose of product placement for Sears, which is a major sponsor and has been very successful from its efforts. Product placement has been a major theme for the show for the past four years, and the website even has an “as featured on” section that includes 16 specific products from tonight’s episode. (Fittingly, the website also has ads for the local builder who donates the labor for each home).

Tonight’s show ended with the parents and three boys piling into a Ford Fusion Hybrid, considerably more obvious in its placement than most episodes. While this makes everyone aware of the new hybrid, this is more akin to winning the car on Wheel of Fortune, not the president mentioning your product in the midst of an international crisis.)

Book 'em Danno!After that, we watched a 1968 episode of Hawaii Five-O, in which every airport shot included a United logo and the closing credits mentioned obligatory “promotion considerations …” While United dominated flights to Hawaii in the 1950s and the 1960s, it did little to forestall the competition it continuously faced on the routes.

Last night, 2/3 of our family — the Food Network addicts — turned to an episode of “My Life in Food” involving weight loss. As part of the episode, they mentioned the help by Taco Bell with its “Fresco Menu.” I am a regular customer of Taco Bell of at least 35 years’ standing, and knew about the initiative — trying to improve its reputation with health Nazis by reducing the calories on all its products by replacing cheese with tomatoes.

For me, lunch is a commodity, in which I satisfice on quality and optimize on price and convenience. Last night’s reminder got me today to try their “new” products, the ones I already knew about. For the same $1.19, I got roughly the same volume of taco but reducing calories by 60 and fat by 4g.

Theoretically, product placement is a better business model for TV shows (or movies), because they are harder to zap than commercials, while if the content is entirely ad-supported, no the producers don’t care how often it’s copied or stolen.

However, as with the testimonial ad, product placement requires a credible spokesman to be effective. And while it’s playing an increasing role in supporting Hollywood productions, placement becomes less effective the more it is used. While product placement may end up shoring short advertorials (like BMW’s “The Hire”), it’s hard to see how they will ever be more than a supplemental funding source for top tier entertainment.

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