Advertisers need a wake-up call, not product placement in new shows

The dismal viewer numbers facing TV networks and advertisers this fall are leading them to do all sorts of tricks to keep putting dollars in the pockets of the entertainment companies and products in front of the eyeballs of consumers. One ramped up approach this season is the integrated product placement that goes so far into the story that shows are weaving story lines around the items.

Of course, this is nothing new. Millions of people have been staring at Coke glasses in front of the judges on American Idol for years, and it was more than 25 years ago that E.T. parceled out Reese's Pieces on the big screen for big bucks. But this year's efforts, as detailed in the L.A. Times, go much further, creating side shows (pun intended) -- like Desperate Housewives extra scene involving Sprint and a Heroes subplot about a Palm Pre.


The question is: Does it pay off?

For advertisers and TV networks, the answer is no, because it just defers the question of where the audience is and how ad rates are determined.There's a reason that industry experts have been waiting for a new age of advertising since digital media came into play: It's because consumers are demanding it. Consumers just aren't listening to advertising anymore. They aren't watching network TV or cable as much as they used to, and they aren't paying as much attention to brand names -- buying generics or store brands at record percentages because of the cost savings.

But TV networks and advertisers have long not thought about the consumer experience in their equations. If they did, they certainly wouldn't be trying to create product placements where they don't work naturally, and where anyone watching will be bored or alienated by the intrusion. What consumers want is value. We watch TV because it is available, cheap entertainment. We watch the ads because they are there, but we never really pay attention. Any impact is subliminal, which may have been enough for advertisers at one point, but is not any more. Subliminal is hard now. It's like a pop-under ad that you just ignore or have a program to zap out. If you are a consumer who doesn't want to be bothered, you just adapt some device to you don't see these things -- a DVR or a mute button or simply walking out of the room.

And therein lies the desperation.For ages, the way TV and advertisers have worked hand-in-hand is that the entertainment companies attract people to sit passively and watch and the advertisers pay to promote their wares in front of as many as they can. Traditionally, they paid based on ratings, which were compiled based on a sampling of viewers filling out forms about the shows that they watched. Eventually, much of that process went digital (instead of paper ballots...) but the sampling process remained essentially the same.

The problem with this is that you get only a vague idea of who is watching what, and not any idea at all about what they are doing during the commercials, or if they are paying attention to the show at all and just have it on for background noise.

Anyone who has worked in web publishing, or any web-based
business, can tell you that this model is no good. Digital media can tell you exactly who is watching what and who is interacting -- with click throughs, heat maps, users studies. It all leads to granular data about people's habits. Much of this data is available to TV networks and advertisers now, they just have been afraid to tap into it. It has been a game of chicken: Who really wants to know that a new prime time show's viewer numbers aren't anywhere near what the network says they are? Certainly not the network. Not even the advertisers -- lower rates might be welcome, but not at the expense of cachet as numbers would go down across the board.


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