May 14, 2013

Branding 101: Product Placement and TV Shows

Branding has become such a general term – a catch-all for everything relating to a brand: names, logos, portfolio organization (we call this architecture), advertising, public relations and marketing. In its purest form, branding is defined as “the promoting of a product or service by identifying it with a particular brand.” So, sticking with this black and white definition, we’re going to focus on the evolution of product placement in television shows.


Historically, product placement could be as simple as the use of Reece’s Pieces in the movie “E.T.” (one of the most memorable examples of product placement), or as obvious as Fed-Ex in the movie, “Cast Away.” Television show equivalents are Carrie Bradshaw’s Apple laptop in “Sex in the City” and the recurring iPhone or Chevy presence in “Glee.”


What’s the evolution of this type of branding? Instead of simply placing a product in a show, it’s actually written into the script. When done well, viewers aren’t hit over the head by the placement, but are, instead, quite pleased with its integration into the storyline. Television viewing has become complicated for brands. And, with the emergence of DVRs and streaming options like Netflix and Hulu, a shift to incorporating products into plots is necessary.


Scripted versus Reality

Scripted television shows have gotten pretty creative when it comes to product placement. A few examples are below.

  • Possibly the most famous (or infamous, as the case may be) is “Sex and the City.” The show’s primary focus on fashion and NYC style made brands like Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo household names. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg- Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Versace made multiple appearances as well. And, the show’s incredible success eventually led to a myriad of product placements in the first “Sex in the City” movie.
  • Throughout its seven season run, “30 Rock” became somewhat synonymous with product placement. Some endorsements were exceptionally funny, e.g., Verizon, while others were a branding cash cow, like Kraft’s sponsorship of “30 Rock’s” Kraft sponsorship storyline. Talk about product placement coming full circle!
  • “Revenge” took product placement and sponsorship to an entirely new level in a November 2012 episode. Target and Nieman Marcus were the ONLY sponsors of the show, and the ads featured a storyline that was a subplot of the main episode, and even included the show’s main characters. “It was a whole new level of integration,” said Jeff Jones, Target’s chief marketer.


Reality versus Scripted

Product placement has absolutely exploded in reality television shows. Check out these examples:

  • In a single month, “American Idol” has inundated viewers with more than 200 in-show product appearances. The most notorious placements? Coca-Cola, AT&T Wireless and Ford.
  • “Biggest Loser” repeatedly incorporates Subway, Extra Sugar Free Gum, Ziploc and Brita into its programming.
  • And, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” leveraged brands for rebuilding homes as well as for family vacations. Examples? Sears, Ford and Disney.


Does product placement really build brand awareness?

Reviews are mixed. Psychologically, the mere exposure effect suggests that people feel a preference for things simply because they are familiar. Need proof? Reese’s Pieces experienced a 65 percent increase in sales after its placement in E.T. So, if you subscribe to this belief, then more equals better for your brand, but viewers don’t always agree. There is a very precarious line that brands have to be careful not to cross, or they may lose some of their followers.


Knowing all of this, here are some final points to ponder: Which brands have you noticed in your favorite TV shows? Does your show handle the product placement well, or do you end up rolling your eyes when you see it?




“’30 Rock’ Satire of Kraft Sponsorship Is Sponsored by Kraft,” New York Times

“Target, Neiman Marcus Look to ‘Revenge’ to Launch Anticipated Holiday Collection,” Ad Age

“Product Placement Hits High Gear on ‘American Idol,’ Broadcast’s Top Series for Brand Mentions,” Ad Age

“Mere Exposure Effect,” PsychCentral

“Product Placement Can Be A Lot More Powerful Than We Realize,” Psychology Today


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