A few years ago, I was a writer on a very girly TV show for a very girly network when I was presented with an interesting challenge. The girly network had struck an ad sales deal with a tire company for a product placement of said tire company during a scene in the show.
Tire company. Girly show. These two things traditionally did not go together, at least not organically, which is what we quickly found out when we attempted to come up with a scene that would accomplish both goals: Jam in the tire brand and stay true to the voice of the series and characters. Sounds simple, like “hey just write a scene about changing a flat tire,” but that wasn’t going to work because the tire company didn’t want to show that their tires had failed. We didn’t want to lose the integrity of the show or make it feel forced. And that is where we—and the tire placement—fell flat.
Product placement, or what is now called brand integration or “native advertising,” seems to be everywhere. According to PQ Media, advertisers spent $8.25 billion on product placement in 2012, and the market is expected to nearly double in the next five years. Clearly, it must work.
These days it’s hard to tell the difference between where a TV show ends and brand integration begins. Broadcast network TV shows like American Idol, Modern Family and America’s Got Talent shoehorn in inorganic advertisements into scenes and performances. In 2011, American Idol alone had over 500 product placements in one season. You couldn’t miss the giant red Coca-Cola bell-shaped cups the size of an Olympic swimming pool sitting in front of the judges. Makes one long for the days when Russell Brand appeared on the FOX-owned Idol to promote his FOX film Arthur with an awkward interchange with contestants.
So who does it well? Not surprising, it’s a familiar face who loves brands, thinking about brands, observing brands: Jerry Seinfeld.[more]
His hit web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee is exclusively sponsored by Acura in a partnership that cleverly makes the auto brand part of the show, which is distributed on Sony’s Crackle.com video hub. In each episode of the web series, which has been streamed over 40 million times since it debuted in July 2012, Seinfeld picks up comedian pals in a vintage car (never an Acura, by the way) chosen to reflect each guest and takes them out to coffee where they have an intimate chat about comedy, their lives and what makes them laugh.
Each week an Acura is strategically placed near the chosen coffee spot and Jerry makes fun of traditional, inorganic product placement. Last season’s Tina Fey episode featured an Acura with the sign “product placement” that Seinfeld pointed out before they hit the coffee shop. A catch-up with Jay Leno featured the new Acura NSX (including a hashtag on the hood). Seinfeld even pens the Acura commercials, such as the ones below, that accompany the series.
The first episode of its fourth season that debuted on June 19th cleverly “disguised” the Acura placement by having Seinfeld and guest Sarah Jessica Parker stopped by a “cop” for “improper product placement” of an Acura MDX. Obvious? Check. Funny? Definitely. On-brand? Absolutely. In fact, Seinfeld tells Ad Age his “product placement philosophy is to make it as intrusive as possible” so the audience is in on the joke.
Acknowledging and poking fun at product placement has certainly paid off for Seinfeld’s web series. It has been nominated for a Primetime Emmy and won Webby Awards and Telly Awards for making branded content funny and engaging. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Acura, meanwhile, has just signed on for 24 additional episodes that will take the series through to season nine.
So what does this say about product placement? Well, it’s obviously here to stay, especially when done well.
While Coca-Cola and Ford are helping to keep the lights on at Idol and help fill the gap when traditional ad dollars fall short, as Seinfeld’s tongue-in-cheek approach shows, consumers want to be engaged. Put some care, humor and strategy into making brand integration entertaining and thoughtful, and viewers will respond.
And if you’d rather just fuhgeddaboudit, call Jerry Seinfeld for advice—he seems to have figured it out. As the comic tells Adweek, “if you can get the viewer and the consumer to see all of this as entertaining, that’s a really fun puzzle to solve.”
—Sarah is a TV writer and brand consultant extraordinaire who can only do 10* girly push-ups.
*when broken up in two sets of five.