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'X Factor,' 'Idol,' 'Biggest Loser' lead in product placement

December 22, 2011 | 11:26 am

XFactor-EpParty-Pepsi_ScBTS_0009[1]Reality shows like "The X Factor," "American Idol" and "The Biggest Loser" may lead the way in product placement on television in terms of dollars, but, according to a study, scripted shows generate far more memorable moments.

For instance, it doesn’t take a house to fall on Tessa Altman for her to know that her new life in the burbs is nothing like her old one in New York City. But it did take a can of sugar-free Red Bull to hit her in the head to drive the point home to viewers.

At least, that’s one scene that stuck out to the audience of “Suburgatory,” making the integration of the energy drink into the ABC sitcom one of the most memorable product placements of the year.

The finding is part of an annual study from Nielsen, a research firm that tracks brands that pop up, either paid or unpaid, in TV shows, and rates the impression of those on-air mentions and placements on the audience. Red Bull in “Suburgatory” was second in viewer recall only to Sheldon on CBS’ hit “The Big Bang Theory” using Purell after handling a live snake.

Among the other well-recalled placements: Det. Beckett (Stana Katic) tools around in a Ferrari on ABC’s cop drama “Castle,” characters play Hasbro board games Scrabble and Monopoly on “Desperate Housewives,” and Subway sandwiches make a high-profile appearance on NBC’s “Chuck.”

For this particular data grab, Nielsen considered only the brands that were both seen and mentioned on network TV shows between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 of this year. Scores come from the percentage of viewers who could recall, within 24 hours, which products they saw while watching TV shows (excluding the ads).

The industry numbers cruncher also rates the “top 10 prime-time programs with product placement.” Most of those shows — “American Idol,” “The Biggest Loser,” “The X Factor” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” — have multi-year, multimillion-dollar deals in place that include star treatment for sponsor brands.

For instance, AT&T handles voting and gets major national exposure during “Dancing With the Stars,” and Cover Girl has been woven into the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model” for years. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola and Ford are as much in the spotlight on “American Idol” as judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, and Pepsi is front and center on Simon Cowell’s new-this-fall singing contest, “The X Factor.” (The latter deal, worth a reported $60 million, includes a role in a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial for the first season winner).

Many scripted programs opt to use actual brands instead of fake ones to ground the stories in the real world. (Producers of “The Big Bang Theory,” for example, said they don’t use paid placements, yet the comedy had three of the most memorable brand integrations of the year with Purell, Twister and Snapple.) Those were creative decisions, producers said.

Marketers, more often than not, allow the usage in scripted shows and sometimes supply product in return for the airtime. Otherwise, no money changes hands.

Viewers can be forgiven for not knowing which placements are paid and which aren’t, industry vets say, because both avenues are common. Watchdog groups like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood oppose the practice because they call it advertising that’s not labeled as such. The Writers Guild of America, West also has spoken out against paid brand integration, saying it forces creative teams to shoehorn products into shows, essentially making them ad copywriters.

Claremont Graduate University marketing professor Peter Sealey, formerly marketing chief at Columbia Pictures, said brands have been looking for a better way to get their message across because so many people now time-shift their TV viewing and skip the commercials.

“Audiences are so scattered, and they’re watching fewer ads, so marketers are scrambling for reach and frequency,” Sealey said. “Putting the brands right into the content is beneficial for them.”

Though it may seem like there’s been a proliferation of product placement on TV already, there’s more coming in the future, said Jeff Greenfield, chief operating officer of C3 Metrics, an advertising measurement company.

The reason? There are more and better tools in the works that will help marketers track just how influential those placements are, giving them a precise return on investment for paid placements.

Plus, an integration has a much longer life span than a traditional ad.

“If your brand is in the content of the show itself, it’ll always be there, whether someone watches it when it airs on prime time TV or in syndication or their DVR or on DVD,” Greenfield said.

If the integration is handled gracefully — if it makes sense to the story for geeky Phil Dunphy on ABC’s “Modern Family” to covet an iPad — then the audience will accept it, Sealey said. Blatant in-show ads, though, will likely get a chillier reception.

Still, “there are already about 15 minutes of commercials an hour," Sealey said. "People may prefer to have a brand integrated into a show rather than have yet another 30-second commercial break.”


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Photo: Simon Cowell of "The X Factor." Credit: Ray Mickshaw / Fox

— T.L. Stanley