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Marketers Put Their Brand on Programs

Product placement and branded entertainment are increasingly becoming de rigueur in the Hispanic television market.

“It is getting to the point where every call and presentation I make to every one of the advertisers out there, they want to talk about how we can integrate their product into our programming,” Azteca America president of network sales Bob Turner said.

Danielle Gonzales, senior vice president and director of investment at Tapestry, the largest buyer of Hispanic media in the U.S., agrees there is strong interest in product integration. “Marketers realize that the 30-second unit is no longer as effective in driving their business,” she said.

Gonzales still buys plenty of 30-second spots, but actively pursues product integration opportunities for clients such as Ritz Crackers. A recent episode of the Telemundo telenovela La Viuda de Blanco (Blanco's Widow) included a scene with the characters eating the crackers and a Ritz sweepstakes featured one of the novela's actresses. The sweepstakes prize was a walk-on role in the show.

Gonzalez believes demand for product integration exceeds supply in the Hispanic market.

Partly, because the most valuable property remains off-limits. Univision's highly successful primetime novelas are produced by Televisa. The Mexican broadcaster reserves product placement opportunities for its own domestic advertisers. U.S. Hispanic advertisers and agencies make due with product integration and placement on Univision's original programming such as the 21-year-old Sabado Gigante (Super Saturday) variety show.

Don Francisco, the stage name of the program's septuagenarian host, is the undisputed king of product integration in Hispanic television. Backed by dancers in gold lamé bikini tops, he gets the audience to sing advertising jingles and incorporates products into contests and skits.

On a recent show, a musical performance was preceded and followed by a plug for Disney Resorts. But it is the “Sí se puede” (“Yes You Can”) segment that best embodies Sabado Gigante's ethos. In it, three down-on-their-luck contestants vie for a Ford Fusion and a chance to win several thousand dollars in cash.

The show is a strong ratings performer, garnering an audience of some 2.5 million people and generally ranks in or close to the top ten highest-rated Spanish-language programs.

But many Hispanic advertising agency and media executives are turned off by such blatant product integration.

“I feel offended when it is obvious and blatant,” The Vidal Partnership managing partner and director of integrated communications Oswald Mendez said.

“Tell me that [U.S.-born Latino youth] probably don't laugh about it,” MTV Tr3s general manager Lucia Ballas-Traynor said.

Univision declined to make an executive available for comment.

Still, Mendez and Ballas-Traynor acknowledge there is an audience and advertiser demand for the Sabado Gigante-style of product integration.

Ballas-Traynor said her network's approach to product integration was the opposite of the Sabado Gigante method, using a lighter touch and a less obvious pitch.

“A tu manera” (“have it your way”) is both Burger King's Spanish-language slogan and a tagline used on the MTV Tr3s shows Sucker Free Latino and TXTO. “ 'A tu manera' happens to be [Burger King's] slogan, but for TXTO and Sucker Free Latino it is all about [customizing] your playlists,” Ballas-Traynor said. “So that was a perfect fit.”

The music network also features product integration for its show Indie 101 which tracks Los Angeles' independent music scene. “The host actually goes all over East L.A. Well, in order to get from one place to another, the guy needs to drive,” MTV Tr3s vice president of advertising sales Harry Neuhaus said. “So, what a coincidence, he happens to drive a [Volkswagen] GTI, which is the car they are currently promoting.”

Executives at several Hispanic advertising agencies and networks unapologetically portray product integration and branded entertainment as a fact-of-life, an inalterable part of the Latino television landscape.

“Look, I think the issue of product integration plays a critical role whether programmers like it or not. It's a reality,” said Alex Pels, general manager of the Latino youth cable network mun2. “Advertisers are no longer interested in only buying spots.”

Toyota, Pepsi and T-Mobile have all paid to have their products worked into mun2 reality and lifestyle-based original production The Chicas Project.

During the half-hour program's debut episode in late January, the two young Latina hosts drive to their skydiving class in a Toyota Camry. At no point do the hosts talk about the vehicle or its attributes. Price is never mentioned.

All told, the Camry is on screen for longer than the credit roll, which lists close to 50 names but makes no mention of any “promotional consideration” by Toyota.

Pels and Ballas-Traynor described their respective efforts as “organic,” grafting a given product into a show or storyline in a way that viewers would consider a natural outgrowth rather than an artificial implant. The risk of product placement that is not organic is that it might turn off consumers.

Individual advertisers conduct research but there is no syndicated data available comparing the effects of the two approaches on various segments of the Latino market.

There is also little consensus on how best to determine the return on investment from product integration.

Asked how to measure the impact, Gonzales responded “Oh, you don't really. It is too difficult. It is integration within a novela, so obviously it is going to have some impact, but we don't have a measurement to isolate that particular effort.”

Pricing also remains inexact. Factors that influence price include the amount of time the product will be seen on-air and the number of copy points, but generally product integration is part of a larger integrated marketing buy, which almost always includes 30-second spots as the biggest ticket item.

Despite the lack of research and the fuzzy pricing, Hispanic broadcast and cable networks are looking to satisfy client demand for product integration opportunities.

Telemundo is perhaps the most aggressive seller of product placement. Unlike Univision, Telemundo produces its own primetime telenovelas, which makes it relatively easy to integrate products. This ability and willingness to do extensive product integration is arguably Telemundo's greatest competitive advantage over Univision in terms of ad sales.

Telemundo offers product integration, in part, simply because it can and because clients want it. But, it is a matter of philosophy too.

“We are going back to the future in some respects. It's ironic,” Telemundo president Don Browne said during a December interview. He was referring to the early television practice of sponsored programs such as NBC's Camel News Caravan and the Colgate Comedy Hour.

Branded entertainment is less pervasive in Hispanic television than product integration and placement but there have been a number of high-profile efforts such as El Reto Final Nissan (TheNissan Rematch).

Five-episode reality show El Reto Final emulated VH1's Bands Reunited concept. Instead of musical groups, the show brought together members of the U.S. and Mexican national soccer teams who played to two ties during the 1997 World Cup qualifying round. The reality show, which featured the host driving a Nissan Titan, tracked down former squad members and covered their subsequent training ahead of a rematch played in May of last year in southern California. The show aired on Fox Sports en Español.

“It was a tremendous success,” Fox Sports en Español senior vice president of advertising sales Tom Maney said. So much so that Reto Final spawned a sequel, scheduled to debut in April. This time, the rematch is between the Argentine and Mexican national soccer squads and the vehicle will be a Nissan Pathfinder.

Pop music is at least as much a draw as soccer when it comes to branded entertainment for the Hispanic market. Last Thanksgiving, just ahead of the Latin Grammys, Univision aired a half-hour RBD concert special, which was paid for by Wal-Mart.

Pop group RBD spun-off from Televisa's popular teen-oriented novela Rebelde (Rebel). The group has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide including 2 million in the U.S., and “Rebelde” was the eighth most searched term on Google in 2006.

Part-branded entertainment and part-infomercial, the concert was timed to promote Wal-Mart's exclusive sale of a RBD CD and DVD package. According to an executive close to the situation, 100,000 units were sold in Wal-Mart stores across the country on the day following the concert.

Simon El Hage, strategic marketing and business development director of Houston-based Lopez Negrete Communications, which put together the RBD concert, said Wal-Mart was pleased with the results. He wouldn't provide exact figures but described it as “one of the most successful launches [for a CD] within Wal-Mart ever. It was a kick-ass program.”

Pepsi Música, an hour-long show that airs twice on Telefutura each Saturday and Sunday morning, is the oldest example of music-driven Latino branded entertainment still on the air. The show began in 2002. The soft-drink maker also sponsored Pepsi Smash Super Bowl Fiesta last week.

Fiesta was one of two hourlong pre-Super Bowl shows that aired on Telemundo. The National Football League is in the midst of a concerted Hispanic marketing effort and is trying to increase the understanding and visibility of the game among Latinos. The second show was the NFL's Tazón Latino (Latino Bowl) sponsored by Coors Light, which featured flag football games played by assorted Latino celebrities and former NFL stars. The idea, according to NFL director of marketing Peter O'Reilly is that Tazón Latino will “expose a new set of fans.”

El Reto Final, Pepsi Música, the RBD concert and Tazón Latino each featured a clearly identified title sponsor. Not so in the case of Concierto Clandestino (Clandestine Concert), a five-minute branded entertainment segment that appears on Telemundo and mun2 courtesy of Nissan and Sprint.

Concierto Clandestino features a competition between concert promoters with the Spanish-language version airing on Telemundo's Nitido and an English-language version on mun2 show 18 and Over. Each contestant was given a Nissan Sentra and a cellphone provided by Sprint, but the brand names are never identified on the show.

“These people are not stupid. They know that if two brands are in there they are paying for it. What we are not giving them is the pitch within the show,” said Mendez, whose agency represents Nissan and Sprint in the Hispanic market. “At least we are respectful enough not to say come and buy this car, this is how much it costs, blah, blah, blah.”

Aldo Quevedo, chief creative officer at Dieste Harmel and Partners believes that featuring the sponsor's name in the program title can work just as well as omitting the brand name. “So long as you are not trying to fool the customer. The brand has to be honest with the consumer,” he said

Mendez said Nissan and Sprint wanted to convey a 24/7 lifestyle. “We want to entertain them and get them associated with the brand, but from a content perspective. The hook is really the content,” said Mendez. “The Nissan Sentra and the Sprint phone are not the stars of the show.”

The growth in the number of reality programs on Spanish-language networks also seems to be driven as much by the opportunity to sell product integration and placement as by lower production costs.

While some, like Mendez, may not be concerned about whether or not viewers can identify branded entertainment and product integration as such, disclosure and the lack of it is an issue for the Writers Guild of America, West.

“We really think there should be proper disclosure that is legible, prominent enough that the viewer knows that the product paid for its appearance in the program,” said Guild spokesperson Jody Frisch.

The WGA is also concerned with ensuring the right of TV writers to refuse the incorporation of a product that doesn't fit in with a character or storyline. And they believe product integration in news and kids programming should be off-limits.

In the case of children's programming, product integration is actually illegal. “We don't do product integration ever on Nick, Jr. or Nickelodeon,” Nickelodeon executive vice president of marketing and worldwide partnerships Pam Kaufman said. “There's no reason to blur the line from a kid's perspective.”

But, for now, kids look to be the only Hispanic viewers that won't be the target of product integration.

“It's a catch-22,” said Mendez. “You have a creative product you want people to see. It needs money to be produced. The networks are short of production dollars. You want your product to be seen. There has to be some sort of compromise.

“It is not an improvement from a consumer perspective but it is an improvement from my advertising perspective. I mean, I am being honest here.”