PHILADELPHIA - When the ladies of Wisteria Lane strode the runway in a charity
fashion show on ABC's "Desperate Housewives," they wore Halston gowns.
Like their kitchens furnished by Thermador and Bosch, and the Buick LaCrosse that Gabrielle posed alongside for a modeling gig, the Halstons were product placements, little commercials embedded in scripts in exchange for goods or money.
Such placements aren't new - remember "Seinfeld's" Snapple and Junior Mints? But their numbers are exploding as programmers seek new revenue to meet rising production costs and advertisers try to counter fragmenting audiences and ad-skipping technology such as the TiVo and similar recorders, which cable and satellite firms are increasingly providing to customers.
As the placement industry approaches an estimated $1 billion a year, products are even advancing the plots, a practice called "script integration."
Even a viewer who fast-forwards through commercials cannot escape brand names.
"This is no fad. This is where the industry is going," said Nicole Cashman, president and chief executive officer of the public-relations firm Cashman & Associates in Philadelphia, which does media placement for clients. "From a public-relations standpoint, I know that if I can get a shower gel into the hands of a celebrity on `Queer Eye,' I can create more product awareness than by buying an ad."
Nielsen Media Research, the TV ratings firm, now tracks placements. So does Advertising Age magazine, in a newsletter aptly named Madison and Vine.
Critics, though, say that blurring the line between art and commerce is "stealth advertising," and they want it stopped.
"It is inherently deceptive if people don't realize that ads are ads," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore.-based consumer advocacy group with ties to Ralph Nader. The group has challenged the legality of embedded ads before the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, which have taken no action.
Viewers haven't risen up against the practice.
"Consumers are exposed to advertising everywhere they look," said Dave Harkness, senior vice president for strategy and development for the VNU Media Measurement & Information Group, which includes Nielsen. "... A TV program with no branded products would be unreal. I don't look kindly on folks who try to protect me from television. The normal viewer knows how to filter information."
But viewers may not be aware that the reason lowly forensic civil servants on CBS's "CSI: Miami" drive $55,000 Hummers is that General Motors donated the vehicles, just to keep them in the public eye.
Product placement also explains those lingering camera shots of folks weeping for joy over Kenmore washing machines on ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." The footage is shot at the request of Sears, which reportedly paid $1 million for the first season for commercials plus verbal and visual references to its products in every episode.
Participants who agree to have their houses demolished and rebuilt by the "Extreme" team lavish a degree of affection on their new appliances not seen since the 1950s, when hard-luck housewives hugged Frigidaires on "Queen for a Day."
In the early days of television, embedded advertising on programs such as "Queen" paid the programming bills. Sponsors, not networks or studios, owned shows such as Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and the Colgate Comedy Hour.
Nobody blinked when a chorus line of guys dressed like gas-station attendants danced onstage every week on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater, singing a commercial: "You can trust your car to the man who wears the star."
What's old is new again. Back then, they were inventing TV as they went along. Now advertisers are desperately trying to get empowered viewers to pay attention, and networks are happy to help.
"It's a much more complex media world today" and commercials aren't enough, said John Faulkner, director of brand communication for Campbell Soup Co., which sponsors "American Dreams" on NBC.
When Campbell Soup Co. sponsored "Lassie" in the 1950s, episodes ended with Timmy having a bowl of soup in the kitchen, a scene witnessed by one-quarter to one-third of all those with sets turned on. There wasn't much to see on television then, so audiences for each show were huge.
"Sponsors can no longer achieve that kind of household penetration, given the number of channels available on cable and satellite," Faulkner said.
Not only is competing for audience share tougher, but digital video recorders were in an estimated 6.5 million homes at the end of 2004.
More than two-thirds of DVR users skip some commercials, and more than three-quarters of that group skip most of them, the research firm In-Stat/MDR found.
So advertisers wonder whether it makes sense to spend $175,000 for a half-minute ad - the average cost on ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox - when they can invest in a plug that cannot be zapped. Most do both.
Volkswagen will spend $200 million over three to five years to place its cars in Universal movies and in TV shows and ads on NBC, Bravo, Sci Fi and USA.
When the WB offered to help advertisers get their brands into scripts, Procter & Gamble signed a pact with "What I Like About You." That's why characters Holly and Tina competed to be the Herbal Essences girl - a plot point followed by a commercial for the shampoo - and Val emoted over a Swiffer. Later, Pringles were served.
Such audio or visual brand "occurrences" on network TV doubled, to 8,145, in the first nine months of last year compared with the same period in 2003, Nielsen found.
On "reality" shows such as "The Apprentice" and "The Biggest Loser," they're often easier to spot than on dramas and sitcoms, where scriptwriters work with advertisers to make it all look seamless.
"The writer may be told that, in a particular scene, it would be nice if a character could be shown drinking bottled water," Harkness said. "You try to make it fit in a way that adds to the reality."
Niles: (Takes out a bag.) I brought you some of those cookies you like.
Frasier: Milanos! Oh, well, thank you.
That exchange from the final episode of NBC's "Frasier" last year made sense. Viewers understood the appeal of an upscale, foreign-sounding treat to two fussy psychiatrists with status fixations.
The Milanos reference tickled Campbell's Faulkner for a different reason. Campbell owns Pepperidge Farm, which makes Milanos. The dialogue was a product placement.
Faulkner is also happy that Campbell's tomato soup is in nine episodes of "American Dreams" this season. As the 1960s-era drama unfolds, daughter Patty enters a Campbell's-sponsored essay contest and the family eats a lot of tomato soup. There are cans of it in the kitchen, in commercials on a black-and-white TV, and in the hands of a young artist visiting a college campus.
In a turn of events that would probably amuse him, Andy Warhol, who elevated a Campbell's label to art, is resurrected to shill for soup.
"If you marry the right product to the right script, you won't turn off viewers," Harkness said. Ideally, they won't even notice what's going on.
© 2005 Knight-Ridder