Beyond Product Placement: When Ads Become Part of the Script

Published August 16, 2006

| FoxNews.com

Welcome to the new age of TV advertising, where the line between show and commercial keeps getting thinner.

Imagine a bag of a particular brand of potato chips sitting on the counter or a bottled beverage in the hand of an actor. Either is hardly noticeable to the average TV viewer. But what happens when an entire show's plot is based around these products?

Each week Americans see nearly 63,000 products displayed in TV shows, according to Nielson Media estimates. Many of them are paid advertisements embedded into a show's set or dialogue in the hopes of attracting more consumers.

One TV show has taken that strategy a step forward.

"Lovespring International," a Lifetime Television semi-scripted summer series, chronicles the hijinks of a dating agency in Beverly Hills. During the show's first run in its Monday 10 p.m. EDT timeslot, viewers saw a commercial for a dating site Perfectmatch.com — the same name as the competitor to the fictitious Lovespring International.

The use of Perfectmatch.com's name in the show actually is part of an advertising deal between the dating Web site, Lifetime TV, the distribution company Lions Gate and the production company Big Cattle Productions.

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Duane Dahl, CEO of Perfectmatch.com, said the company, which was already a paying advertiser on Lifetime TV, agreed to direct some of its advertising dollars to support the show and also agreed to promote the show on its Web site, which has about 3 million registered users.

"It's a cross-promotion deal, so we agreed to support the show on our site," Dahl said, adding that "pay-for-play" deals, where a sponsor pays money to have their product featured in a show, aren't for Perfectmatch.com.

"Where pay-for-plays might make sense for someone like Budweiser, it doesn't make sense for us because we have a captive audience we can leverage immediately," Dahl said.

Packaging such an advertisement into what is most likely expected to be commercial-free content could lessen an ad's impact on viewers, cautions one media expert.

"I think we'll reach the point of a threshold and people will realize they're being sold to," says John Pavlik, the director for new media at Rutgers University.

By no means is embedded advertising a new concept. In fact, in as early as the very first days of film producers were putting products into the hands of actors. Pavlik said the Lumiere brothers, who are credited with the world's first public film screening, put bars of Lever soap into their first films.

"Friends," the NBC ratings-winning darling that ran for 10 years, based one episode's plot around Phoebe's hatred for Pottery Barn furniture, which was, sure enough, an advertisement.

But "Lovespring International," with the show's plot being based partially on an ad, might be pushing the line of what consumers find acceptable.

Even Michael Forman, co-creator of the show and partial owner of Big Cattle Productions, says the amount of ad integration in Lovespring was a "touchy subject" that left him a little uncomfortable.

"If you see Jerry Seinfeld talking about a Coke and then you see a Coke commercial, where does the show stop and the commercial start?" Forman asked.

Still, Forman said, in terms of working with an ad partner, the deal with Perfectmatch.com has been an easy one to manage. And part of that is because Dahl agreed that the cast of the show could poke fun of the company.

"Since our show is improvised, we didn't want to hinder what the actors could and couldn't say," Forman said. "Perfectmatch became this über-nemesis [of the agency Lovespring] and the definition of how a good dating service works, as opposed to our office of misfits. And we definitely had fun at Perfectmatch.com's expense."

The birth of the deal between the four partners has sparked a debate about placing advertising so fundamentally in a show's script.

Dahl and Kevin Beggs, head of the TV division at Lions Gate, got the ball rolling on the project. They had worked together before on similar deals.

Beggs first suggested, after hearing about Lovespring's development at Big Cattle, that Perfectmatch.com be the main subject of the story — the name of the wacky dating service that never seemed to be able to get it right. Of course, Dahl said he was hesitant to have his dating service, which has 3 million users, painted in such a negative light. Beggs rethought the idea, and later pitched it as Perfectmatch.com playing the role of the competitor, the one who always gets it right.

There were also concerns on the creative side. Being that Lovespring is an improvised show, the show's writers, as well as the actors who create much of the dialogue themselves, were worried they would feel hindered by such a deal, Beggs said.

"How do we convince the creators this isn't going to harm the show?" he said. "They were comfortable if it wasn't too over the top and if Perfectmatch was willing to let a comedy be a comedy, and be the butt of jokes as well as an engine of jokes."

Eventually, all four parties came to a consensus. And is it working?

Dahl wouldn't pinpoint exactly how well his site is doing since the show started airing, but said typically the site grows by 15 to 20 percent when it does projects like this.

On the creative side, Forman said that while the show is doing well, it could be doing better, but it has nothing to do with the advertising techniques.

"I'd love to be in a better time period. 11 p.m. on a Monday night — we're not getting as many eyeballs as we would if we were in a different time slot," he said.

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