Monday, November 21, 2005

The Product Is The Message

The product is the message

Shelley Fralic
Vancouver Sun

Friday, November 18, 2005

Nestled among all the breathless two-hour specials and cross-over casting that filled our screens during November sweeps was this interesting moment, featured on the much-promoted Nov. 6 episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

The case, led by the detectives played by Chris Noth and Vincent D'Onofrio, involved a bad judge and his son and, like most episodes of L&O, was a study in terrific acting and riveting story line.

So riveting, in fact, it was easy to miss the real star of the show, that being a can of Coca-Cola, which was summarily drained by a punk suspect in the interrogation room before being carted away, gingerly so as to preserve its DNA possibilities, by Det. Bobby Goren.

Now that, my friends, is product placement, for that wasn't just a can of Coke as prop, but a can of Coke as cast member.

Nothing new about product placement on television, of course -- this is the medium that brought us Wonderful World of Disney and the Hallmark Hall of Fame, along with a Dodge Charger in Dukes of Hazzard, a Pontiac Trans Am in Knight Rider, and a Ferrari in Magnum PI, which was nearly as handsome as Tom Selleck.

But not since E.T.: The Extraterrestrial so endearingly followed a trail of Reese's Pieces have we been this masterfully manipulated by Madison Avenue, as marketers increasingly turn to television to blur the lines between advertisement and content.

You might be old enough to remember that retail products on primetime had a proper place -- they were either overtly promoted in a bona fide commercial or disguised on a set. If a bottle of whisky showed upon Bonanza, for instance, you can bet the label was facing away from the camera so as not to identify the brand.

Even the soaps for which the soap opera is named knew their place: a 30-second hard sell between cliff-hanging scenes.

And then along came E.T., setting a new standard for product placement.

In a deal with George Lucas, the Hershey company provided its Reese's Pieces for free, and then spent $1 million on commercial advertising to simultaneously promote the movie and the candy. (The only loser in that scenario? M&Ms, which turned down Lucas's offer to be part of the 1982 classic.)

The advertising world, some would say, has never been the same, on the small screen or the big.

Whether it's Tom Hanks and his feature-length ad for FedEx in Castaway or Keanu Reeves sporting Ray-Bans in Matrix or the American Idol judges drinking Coke from Coke-emblazoned glasses, while contestants wait in the Coca-Cola room on the Coca-Cola couch, it's a rare show today that doesn't use some kind of product placement.

(Just as rare is the sports event -- and athlete -- not plastered with branding, from hockey rinks to Nascar to Tiger's tees and Jordan's sneaks.)

Technology is one reason. With the advent of Tivo and DVDs and all manner of electronic devices that allow us to scan and even skip commercials, advertisers are fighting for their lives, developing ever more subliminal means to parade their wares for the consumer radar.

So successful have they been -- and that can of Coke in Law & Order is a prime example, PP having now invaded "intelligent" TV -- that there's even a new term for it: product integration, in which the product becomes integral to the story, in this case evidence.

A few recent examples:

q Candidates for The Apprentice, Donald Trump's job interview reality show, building campaigns around everything from the movie Zathura to the new Tide To Go stick cleaner.

q Jennifer Garner using a Nokia phone as Agent Sydney Bristow on Alias.

q An Apple laptop computer front and centre on 24.

q America's Next Top Models doing screen tests for Secret Platinum Clear Gel deodorant.

q Kevin James, star of King of Queens, tussles with his sitcom wife over an ill-gotten iPod.

And it's not limited to the broadcast medium. Several years ago, the Bulgari jewelry company commissioned respected British author Fay Weldon to write a book featuring their products. She did, calling it The Bulgari Connection.

It's a subject of much debate, as you might imagine, but on this most of the experts agree: Product integration in the mass media is not going away any time soon, not when we have new generations of consumers who know nothing better and expect nothing less and who, in fact, appear to favour this built-in preview of products as part of their entertainment consumption.

Nor will advertisers likely give up trying to buy their way into a story line, not when the once effective stand-alone commercial spot no longer has a captive audience, and not when the likes of George Lucas has trampled on the artistic ethics of PP, taking the money over the morals.

Are we facing the end of the traditional television commercial as we know it?

Probably. And fair enough. Just as long as we know when a can of Coke is more than just a can of Coke.



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