When Product Placement Goes Too Far

Madison Avenue is discovering the boundaries for branded entertainment
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As the chief media officer of New York-based agency Deutsch, Peter Gardiner is one of Madison Avenue's most influential executives. He is also recognized as a leading developer of the kind of branded entertainment deals that have transfixed the industry and appear to be squeezing out conventional media buys—at least in the headlines of the trade press and in industry panel discussions, if not in actuality.

But a recent personal experience taught Gardiner a valuable lesson about what happens when branded entertainment deals step over the line. He and his 18-year-old daughter were watching TV together when they came across a show featuring an especially attention-getting product placement: the sudden appearance of the Energizer Bunny during ESPN's Bound For Glory, a series about a small-town high school football team that, like the battery brand, keeps on going.

The stunt got the attention of both Gardiner and his daughter, but it also elicited a reaction that Energizer's marketing team likely did not hope for.

“Bulls--t!” blurted Gardiner's daughter. Her dad also felt that the bunny's appearance was out of place, acknowledging, “It was sort of a negative moment.”

However, it also was a memorable enough moment that Gardiner used it to make a key point during a recent Advertising Women of New York panel debate on branded entertainment: that product placement sometimes goes too far and violates the unspoken trust the media, advertisers and agencies have with consumers.

“SCHLOCKY” BUT EFFECTIVE

“It felt schlocky, but I did remember it,” recalls Gardiner, who believes that such snafus are to be expected because branded entertainment is still a relatively young business that has yet to establish its ground rules.

Gardiner, who has worked on product-placement deals ranging from Bank of America to Snapple, has also been the subject of product placement. He was featured, along with his boss Donny Deutsch and other members of his agency, during some early episodes of NBC's The Apprentice. He believes branded entertainment will ultimately transform the way Madison Avenue does business.

“I think of it as the Internet 10 years ago,” he says. “It was just a blip on the radar screen, and now it's changed everybody's lives.”

In the meantime, he says, Madison Avenue is learning more about what not to do with product placement than what necessarily works best, especially when it comes to research and testing on consumer reactions to branded- entertainment deals.

“What we are finding is that there is some real range of emotions taking place,” he says, alluding to his daughter's reaction to the Energizer deal.

Julie Kantrowitz, chief marketing officer at Full Circle Entertainment, a unit of Madison Avenue giant Omnicom that specializes in branded entertainment, agrees that marketers and producers often step over the line. But she says that's also how they learn what works and what is inappropriate.

“We pull back once that meter goes off,” she says, referring metaphorically to a consumer-sensibility meter, as well as literally to Nielsen's TV-ratings meters. When consumers grow wary of product placement, she notes, they may not simply react negatively about the brands involved but may actually turn the shows off.

other media pushing the envelope

While the debate over branded entertainment is swirling within television circles, it's heating up in other media, too. It's particularly controversial in the print medium, where rigid editorial content policies appear to be easing up as marketers and agencies pressure publishers to mix branded mentions into their stories.

“There's a difference between the media,” says David Carey, president of business media at magazine publisher Conde Nast, which created a hornet's nest among magazine editors when it sold an entire issue of The New Yorker to retailer Target as a single advertising sponsorship.

Carey pointed out that magazines appear to be striking an especially hard line, while other media such as radio have always blurred the line between editorial content and plugging brands.

But even newspapers are entering fuzzy territory. The New York Times, for example, is among the major daily newspapers to agree to offer “watermark” ads, or ads that superimpose a brand's images, name or icon directly over editorial content.

STEPPING OVER THE LINE

While Carey insists “no lines were crossed” on the Target deal, the belief that the magazine had somehow given in to an advertiser helped stir a debate that's been building in other media: How far can editorial content go with product placement before it breaches editorial ethics or, just as bad, breeds cynicism among consumers?

Madison Avenue may already have stepped over that line. According to consumer research conducted by Chicago-based media agency Starcom, 66% of magazine readers already assume that most mentions of brands in consumer magazines are paid for by the advertiser.

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