Product Placement vs. Plot Placement
Not all entertainment-media shows require a company to step into the role of executive producer. Where TV and film used to offer only static product placement to companies, new creative approaches are verging into a practice that we call "plot placement." As media buyers develop more and more sophisticated quantification of the impact and value of product placements, companies are discovering that having a product appear in the background of a scene is one thing, but to become a central plot element (à la Butterfingers candy in one episode of Seinfeld) may be worth ten times the cost of running a commercial in that same program. This kind of integration of a brand or product into a significant and engaging role in a storyline is what we call plot placement. Other recent and upcoming examples include:
Award-winning English novelist Fay Weldon's use of the Bulgari brand in her romantic satire, The Bulgari Connection, in exchange for a sponsorship from the Italian jeweler
The first production at the new Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Times Square: the historical American musical Ragtime, a tremendous popular and critical success that happened to feature a prominent role for Henry Ford and his story
A three-month plot line on the soap opera All My Children, involving the cosmetics brand Revlon and thrilling corporate espionage
The movie The Italian Job, in which a Mini (BMW's sporty new miniature car) plays a central and elaborate role in the title heist
Television variety and talks shows where sponsors place their logos on sets and their products and spokespeople in comedy sketches, including Fox's The Best Damn Sports Show Period and a planned variety show on the WB Network that will have no interruptions for traditional commercials
We also expect to see traditional product placement continue and even increase as new technology allows product placements to be added after the fact, boosting profits on sports footage (with extra logos crammed in digitally onto empty playing field space) and syndicated reruns (Mary Tyler Moore drank Vanilla Coke?). But really, one has to ask: how valuable is it to slap your logo on the last uncovered inch of Michael Schumacher's elbow as he steps into his Formula One racecar? Show business brands instead will look to integrate their brand into the plot and deliver something enjoyable in the process.
With TiVo and other intermediary viewing technologies looming, we might even be looking at a technological "end of advertising as we know it" (i.e., stand-alone TV spots). In that case TV will likely go back to integrating programming and advertising as in the early days of the medium. Not just Lucy and Desi commenting on the smoothness of their Phillip Morris cigarettes or the Beverly Hillbillies conspicuously downing their Kellogg's Cornflakes; but all the way back to the Burma Shave and Gillette hours.
The prospect may sound dreadful (so does a lot of current TV programming), but really it's a question of how it is handled. If corporate sponsorship has to rely on crassly commercial product placements, it will be even less effective than today's advertisements. But if it can find a way to become so integrated and entertaining that people don't mind, or better yet, actually enjoy the affiliation of a favorite brand with a favorite story, the show will go on.