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Nielsen and the Mysterious Decline in Product Plugs

When Nielsen released its top 10 lists of “most popular trends” for 2009, on Dec. 11, one list that jumped out was top programs for “product placement activity,” which means the number of on-screen appearances of or references to products. According to that list, the No. 1 show was NBC’s Jay Leno Show, with 1,015 “occurrences.” NBC’s The Biggest Loser came in at No. 3 (second among broadcast shows), with 704, and Fox’s American Idol was No. 4, with 553.

What jumped out about those tallies was an apparently dramatic drop in on-screen plugs on broadcast TV year-to-year–and just at a time when the issue is catching the eye of Washington regulators. According to the 2008 list, the top broadcast show in plugs was The Biggest Loser, with a whopping 6,248; American Idol was second, with 4,636. (This is also the first year that Nielsen has included cable in that top 10 list, so there is no standard for comparison).

But it turns out the difference is not in the number of plugs, which likely has gone up, but in how Nielsen is now counting them.

In a footnote, the ratings company explains that “as a result of coding enhancements implemented in 2009, occurrence counts now reflect the total number of show segments in which a brand/product appears.”

Translation (according to a Nielsen executive): For the purposes of the list, the company now counts all similar occurrences of a product in a program segment–the space between commercials–as a single occurrence. That actually makes reality shows look less plug-filled due to production techniques, at least by the occurrences measure. Nielsen also continues to measure duration, which would not be affected by the change.

In the 2008 chart, every quick cut or pan to a product counted as a separate occurrence. David Kaplan, senior VP, research and product development, explained why a show like American Idol would have seen such a precipitous drop:

“Shows that have quick cuts and would pan away and come back, as opposed to having steady shots, like a reality show–where you might have a Coke bottle displayed and have a conversation taking place between the host of the show and the judges, where you have more cutaways and pans–vs. a sitcom, where you had one steady shot. They may have been on the screen for the same amount of time–the sitcom would show one occurrence and the reality show would show 20 occurrences.”

Kaplan says the value of the placement to the advertiser of both would be the same, with the only difference being how the show is produced. He said that choice in tracking came after talking to clients, who he says are really most interested in whether or not Coke, say, has a presence in the show.

Kaplan says the change also came from the merging of IAG and Nielsen (Nielsen bought the company about a year and a half ago). Nielsen has been using the higher number citing every occurrence, while IAG has been using the segment measure to define occurrence.

He also points out that different plugs for the same product, say a Coke can followed by a cut to a Coke machine, would still be counted as two occurrences within a program segment.

Product placement has been on the radar screen in Washington, particularly at the Federal Trade Commission. It is concerned about the marketing of sodas and snack foods in shows targeted to kids, or with a large number of young viewers. American Idol has been cited as one of the latter, including by current FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. The FTC held a workshop last week on the issue.

It would not hurt advertisers or networks to appear to be airing a lot fewer plugs, but Kaplan says that was not the motivation.

“The decision to make the change had absolutely nothing to do at all with what is taking place in Washington,” he says. “This was purely a decision that was made because of the way advertisers assess product placement in programs.

He also points out that Nielsen releases other data publicly throughout the year on duration of placements, which captures the length of those single plugs in each segment. “Metrics like duration on screen remain largely unchanged,” Kaplan says, “so if you were to look at 2008 vs. 2009 on that measure, it would look the same, or probably even higher. Advertisers don’t necessarily care how many unique times the brand is exposed on the screen. It is more about, ‘I had a presence in the show; did my competitor have a presence in the show and how long was it on screen?’”

In fact, Kaplan says to look for Nielsen to be releasing a more comprehensive report on product replacement and its impact–a sweet spot for the IAG side of the merged company.