Product Placement Hits the Small Screen

Do you get an inexplicable craving for Outback steaks and Mike's Hard Lemonade every time you watch your favorite sports channel?

Don't be surprised: While you were catching up on football gossip, you were also getting a dose of advertising. A fact of life in movies since E.T. nibbled his first Reese's Pieces, product placement has come to the small screen.

"There's no doubt that the industry is increasingly enticed by it, both advertisers and the networks," Advertising Age reporter David Goetzl said. "They definitely both seem to be looking for ways to do more and more of it."

Fox Sports' Best Damn Sports Show, Period! includes on its stage a built-in Quizno's sandwich shop, a Mike's Hard Lemonade Bar, vehicles from Honda and dinners from Outback Steakhouse. The audience isn't told advertisers pay for the placements, but neither does the show hide the fact it incorporates them into the program.

During a recent "bachelor party" segment for host Tom Arnold, one of the guests was a relatively unknown actor from a Dockers commercial. In a staged interaction, Arnold splashed his drink on the actor's pants in mock anger, then talked about the Dockers Go Khaki Stain Defender pants' ability to withstand staining.

"Blurring the line as long as it's entertaining doesn't bother me at all," executive producer George Greenberg said. "It's great for the sponsor, and it's great for the show."

For Levi Strauss, it was simply a great way to sell Dockers pants.

"We felt like launching our ad on a commercial [the show] like that was a good way to advertise about the benefits of our pants in a way the consumer could relate to," said spokeswoman Andrea Corso.

The trend isn't relegated to one network.

A $1 billion deal between the Walt Disney Company and media agency OMD could include product placement in series on ABC and ESPN. For 13 weeks, one subplot of All My Children will revolve around Revlon. And if you thought the characters on HBO's Six Feet Under seem cell-phone prone, you were right: Motorola was a sponsor.

"This is a compelling way to advertise in a creative, subtle way and catch people's attention without having it scream out at them," Goetzl said.

Today's audience may be jaded by all sorts of catchy ads and jingles. Then there's TiVo, which allows viewers to skip commercials entirely. In response, advertisers have to be more ingenious about getting their message across.

Cable network TNT experimented this summer with "pop-up" ads. During movies, a window appeared in a corner of the screen asking viewers to try American Express Financial Services.

It's prime time for companies like Princeton Video Image, of Lawrenceville, N.J., which digitally adds logos or products to programs.

Co-CEO Roberto Sonabend said the fears about rampant product placement are misplaced. In fact, he said, product placement makes shows more realistic.

"In a normal environment you always see branding," he said. "To cover that is artificial."

That philosophy also guides Greenberg, who said people who don't want to see product placement on television will be seeing it anyway at the movies or at sporting events.

"There's blurring all over the place. It's how you get the person at home to pay attention," he said. "Anytime you can get the consumer to notice, it's a win."

But Goetzl predicted product placement on television shows won't go much farther than it has already, for simple economic reasons.

"One reason it works in movies is that the producers don't have to sell ads every week," he said. "You can do a one-time deal with Nokia in one film and don't have to go back to Ericsson a week later and ask them to buy ads."

News Corp. is the parent company of Fox Sports and the Fox News Channel, which operates