Verisimilitude or Advertising? Brand Appearances on Prime-Time Television

Article excerpt

This paper outlines the policy debate surrounding the commercial practice of product placement and documents brand appearances on prime-time television using 112 hours of programming from four major networks. A content analysis is used to explore the manifest and latent aspects of brand portrayal. Results indicate that brands are prolific in this medium, with the majority appearing in coverage of live or topical events. The majority of brands appearing in scripted programs suitable for passive persuasion are subtly displayed. Those prominently displayed are reinforced by character interaction and inextricably intertwined with the story line. Future research directions and public policy implications are explored.

The popularity and impact of traditional television advertising have been in decline in recent years as a result of increased costs and competition from cable and independent networks since the late 1980s. This trend has forced the big television networks and their sponsors--the advertisers--to become more aggressive in utilizing alternative avenues of persuasion (Lipman 1991). In addition, there is growing concern that viewers are tuning out formal advertisements or switching channels during commercial breaks, behavior called zapping (Elliot 1992; Lipman 1991). An increasingly popular strategy used by marketers to combat zapping is called product placement. This term refers to attempts to influence viewing audiences via the planned placement of branded products in movies or television programs, either for a contractual fee or by donation (Babin and Carder 1996; Balasubramanian 1994; Lackey 1993). The strategy has become a viable and increasingly important competitive weapon in the marketer's arsenal (Bloxha m 1998; Gupta and Lord 1998), and a report from a group of major advertisers included the recommendation to recognize product placement in movies as a new medium of communication between producers and consumers (Elliot 1992).

The popularity of product placement has fueled a thriving industry of about 100 promotion companies in the U.S. that specialize in this form of advertising. Among the largest independent firms are Norm Marshal and Associates in Sun Valley, Unique Product Placement in North Hollywood, and Davie-Brown in Santa Monica (Adamson 1996). Placement agents read scripts and meet with set designers to find scenes where their clients' products can be placed in the set or written into the dialogue. The goal is to include brands that add verisimilitude to the movie or program, that give subtle exposure to brand names, and that persuade in an unobtrusive manner (Babin and Carder 1996; Balasubramanian 1994).

Placements in movies are unregulated and usually result from paid contractual arrangements, with the price of a single placement varying depending on factors such as length and prominence of exposure and interaction with (or endorsement by) characters in the movie (McCarthy 1994). Increasingly, major movie studios will bargain for extensive advertising campaigns from their corporate sponsors because a tie-in promotion can be more valuable to the studio than a product placement fee. The value of a movie placement is further enhanced by the fact that the company's product gets multiple exposures once the film is released overseas, on video, or in its rerun stage on television. Furthermore, if a major star uses the product, it also implies strong product endorsement (Adamson 1996).

Placements in television programs are usually unpaid because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has sponsorship identification rules governing paid placements in this medium. The regulation stipulates that when brands are mentioned or appear in television programs for a fee or special consideration, that information must be disclosed during the program (with special waivers being granted to movies that appear on television in their rerun stage). Many manufacturers have found a way around the FCC sponsorship identification rules, however, by simply supplying products free of charge to program directors (Vollmers and Mizerski 1994). …