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Gauging Engagement | by Christopher Wolf

Let Me Entertain You
Two-thirds of advertisers reportedly use “branded entertainment” to reach consumers, so what are you waiting for?

Quick, which restaurant chain embeds its brand within NBC’s “Fit to Boom” and “Chuck” series? What beverage do the judges sip at their “American Idol” table? Which casual-dining chain was the challenge theme for an episode of “Top Chef”? And which restaurant was the subject of a menu-development project for Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice”?*

Most likely, consumers these days could answer these questions more accurately than tell you whose commercials appeared in between scenes on popular scripted shows like “CSI” or “The Mentalist.”

Embedded marketing practices have been around since the introduction of movies, but the proliferation of reality TV programming in the past decade has spawned an epidemic of product and brand placements outsmarting commercial-skipping technologies.

According to the last published numbers, the reality television show that featured the most embedded brand mentions in a year was NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” registering 6,248 product placements in 2008! “American Idol” came in second with 4,636 placements in a year. Whether for cost savings or special brand kickbacks, it appears this tactic is a win-win for networks and marketers alike. PQ Media’s most recent Product Placement Spending in Media report estimates that brand entertainment spending totaled nearly $3.5 billion in 2008.

But just the presence of an embedded message doesn’t mean it sinks in with consumers, especially given the noise of so many placements on TV. That’s why companies like Nielsen measure brand recall in both product placements and traditional television ads. In one case, Nielsen’s brand opinion poll revealed that “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had the most effective placements last year, registering as much as 250 to 300 percent above average in not only recall but in “improved opinion of the integrated brand” among viewers.

Right now, restaurants are in the minority of placement mentions. But when a restaurant does place, it can have an impact. Nielsen, for example, rated El Pollo Loco third in most effective product placement on Bravo’s “Flipping Out” last year with an index of 254 (100 being an average score). Similarly, McDonald’s appeared in several installments of “The Amazing Race” between October 20 and November 16 last year, earning the chain the highest recall ratings for any branded entertainment placement in that period.

The report Product Placement Spending in Media estimates that brand entertainment spending totaled nearly $3.5 billion in 2008.

When asked in a survey why they use placement over other forms of advertising, members of the Association of National Advertisers cited a “stronger emotional connection” and enhanced content relevance. But ask any sponsor what their agreement entails, and you’ll get lots of different answers.

Sometimes marketers pay fees or incorporate these arrangements into a wider sponsorship agreement (e.g., Subway and NBC), but other common agreements include providing free product (Whole Foods on “Top Chef”) or loaning expensive items (Ford or General Motors) to subsidize a show’s production costs. Sometimes it’s a happy accident, or an “incidental exposure,” as media people call it.

El Pollo Loco’s appearance on “Flipping Out,” for example, wasn’t a placement at all, according to Julie Weeks, vice president of communications at the brand: “Believe it or not—we do not have a product-placement arrangement with Bravo’s ‘Flipping Out.’ The host, Jeff Lewis, simply loves our food and talks about it a lot! We did participate in successful product placement opportunities a couple of years ago with ‘The Apprentice’ and ‘The Biggest Loser,’ but have not initiated product-placement activities in the past year.”

Similarly, Ashlee Yingling, who handles media relations for McDonald’s USA, told me that the mention on “The Amazing Race” wasn’t something the brand coordinated.

Whether it’s a free or contracted placement, there is still the question of acceptability. Nielsen’s opinion survey highlights brands whose image is enhanced by embedded marketing. In contrast, the popular food Web site Yelp! recently took its own poll among members about product placement in TV programs. One blogger complained that “product placement has become more and more noticeable. They used to be much more subtle about it back in the day.”

Similarly, a columnist on Gawker.com wrote last April that “NBC has shockingly ruined the integrity of its dramatic show ‘Chuck’ by allowing Subway what is perhaps the most blatant (and therefore laughable!) product placement in network TV history.” Ironically, just a few weeks later, fans of the show leveraged this tie-in to appeal to Subway to “Save Chuck” from cancellation through an enhanced sponsorship appeal.

In addition to consumer criticism, a number of advocacy groups such as the Consumers Union and the American Academy of Pediatrics increasingly are pressuring the FCC to place more limits on embedded-marketing practices. Perhaps a more important risk at this point, however, is the lack of control advertisers can have with product placement in unscripted reality shows. One blogger says, “I like how ‘Top Chef’s’ product placements are submarined by the contestants’ complaining about the products.”

For most people, embedded marketing is primarily a matter of taste, and it appears that consumers have more tolerance for branded entertainment within reality shows than within scripted television shows or movies.

But the most important consideration is the appropriate integration of brand mentions into the most relevant programming so that the placement appears to be genuinely connected with the program’s content. Sending chefs to shop at Whole Foods to get ingredients for a “Top Chef” competition, for example, is not only appropriate to the challenge but also a relevant appeal to the target audience of the show.

Perhaps the most effective way to address this marketing trend, however, is to focus on being a standout brand that programmers and hosts can’t resist integrating into a show. Then the potential incidental exposure benefits are likely to far outweigh any costs.

*Answers:  1) Subway  2) Coca-Cola  3) T.G.I. Friday’s  4) Domino’s Pizza
As director of strategic innovation for The Turover Straus Group, Christopher Wolf serves a wide range of manufacturing and retail-based clients seeking strategic and culinary innovations for consumers and the food industry.