Product Placement Watch: Yale Study on Opportunistic Ads an Opportunistic Ad for Yale?

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In a study that is making the rounds of outrage this week, it’s revealed that American advertisers of “junk food” are using product placement to get around recent commitments by brands not to directly target children as regulators threaten to impose tougher guidelines on marketers. That the study comes out of Yale University is probably the reason it’s being accepted with little to no scrutiny.

That’s a shame, because while the study’s bigger conclusion might still be true, with in-program product placement rising as commercial parameters get tougher, its methodology is questionable and proves only one thing about product placement: There isn’t enough research.[more]

From Reuters:

“The Yale study aimed to quantify how many product placements appear on prime-time TV and also determine how many of those that kids actually see. Researchers analyzed Nielsen media data from 2008 and found some 35,000 brand placements had appeared on prime-time television that year.”

The study, conducted by Yale’s Rudd Center for Policy and Obesity, points to one brand in particular:

“Young people viewed relatively few of these appearances with one notable exception. Coca-Cola products were seen 198 times by the average child… Brand appearances for most food industry companies, except for Coca-Cola, are relatively rare during prime-time programming with large youth audiences. Coca-Cola has pledged to refrain from advertising to children, yet the average child views almost four Coke appearances on prime-time TV every week. This analysis reveals a substantial, potential loophole in current food industry self-regulatory pledges to advertise only better-for-you foods to children.”

One of the study’s authors particularly condemns Coke as the harbinger of such soft drink brand tactics, saying they “have switched their [marketing] strategy,” said Schwartz. “Coca-Cola said they were not going to market to children under 12. By sheer numbers, they are reaching massive numbers of children. That’s the loophole. Whether they mean to or not, the kids are seeing that.”

But look more closely at the study’s results and you’ll find this gem: “Of the 198 Coke brand appearances viewed by children, 192 appeared on American Idol.”

The study’s definition of “children” is those aged 2 to 11, a Nielsen demo that makes up just 8% of Idol‘s audience.

The fundamental problem is the Yale study’s methodology:

“Data on the number of food, beverage, and restaurant brand appearances within shows during prime-time programming in 2008 were purchased from Nielsen and analyzed by product category and company in 2010. Exposure to these brand appearances by children, adolescents, and adults were examined and compared with exposure to prime-time TV advertisements for the same categories and companies using additional Nielsen data.”

While Nielsen started tracking TV product placement in 2003, its research is the basis on which the Yale study’s entire condemnation of product placement by the soft drink industry is pointed towards a single program — American Idol on FOX, which typically tops its product placement rankings — and one of its sponsors — Coca-Cola — whose product placements are limited to the infamous Coca-Cola cups sitting on a table in front of the judges. Moreover, each time the camera cuts to the panel, that counts as a product placement.

No two product placement are equal, of course. A Coke-branded cup sitting on a table is hardly as powerful a product placement as when a character actually endorses or uses that product, a commonality in prime-time. In fact, in the decade of product placement tracking Brandchannel has done in top films aimed at children, we’ve seen a flattening out, and in some cases even a decrease, in product placement.

Instead of doing the tough legwork of watching Nickelodeon or other daytime programming that counts children as a large demo, the study grabbed three-year-old Nielsen data, which can hardly be indicative of a trend.

What’s more, they’re looking in the wrong place, suggests one influential advertising exec to Adweek:

“Prime time isn’t a daypart an advertiser wanting to reach children would look at,” said Brad Adgate, SVP of corporate research for Horizon Media. Weekday afternoons and Saturdays make more sense, as that’s when children make up between 13 percent and 18 percent of the TV viewing audience, according to an analysis of Nielsen data by Horizon.

In the end, the brand that comes out of this as looking opportunistic may not be Coca-Cola, American Idol or FOX … but Yale. We welcome responses from Yale and Nielsen, of course, on the methodology and conclusions.

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