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The New Script for Product Placement

From American Idol
judges sipping from Coca-Cola cups to the Swiffer Sweeper cleaning up on Trading Spaces, product placement in reality shows is commonplace now.
The next frontier: Product placement is seeping into scripted shows, where products are woven in during series development.

creator Mark Burnett, an early master of product placement, is creating hour-long scripted drama Eden
for NBC and is already talking to major companies about tie-ins. Universal Television's ad-sales force has recruited 12 advertisers to place products in a Sci Fi Channel limited series 5 Days to Midnight, slated for June. Even Hallmark Channel is looking for ways to marry its original movies and clients' products.

Of course, catching a branded product in a scripted show is nothing new. Advertisers clamored to get their products on hit sitcoms like Friends
and Seinfeld
once the shows scored with viewers. But that is "retrofitted" product placement, explains Kevin McAuliffe, Universal Television's senior vice president of cross-platform initiatives. Once a show is hot, an advertiser wants in. With these new initiatives, advertising deals are happening alongside the creative development.

"When brands buy in at the concept level, they understand creative process and the studio side of the equation," he says. In turn, "a product can be written in for usage, rather than just sitting on the sink."

Such a lead-time helps both sides get creative. "We can develop [plans] together in the frontend rather than working a deal out in the middle of the night during an upfront," says Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of sales for Turner Entertainment Networks.

With 5 Days to Midnight, McAuliffe and Universal Television ad-sales chief Jeff Lucas started pitching clients last spring after seeing just the first episode script. The series, set in present day with a young professor trying to unravel clues about his own imminent murder, seemed ripe for integration, McAuliffe says.

So far, advertisers include a fast-food company, a car client, hair and skin products for men, and even a gum advertiser. It is an exclusive deal with ad agency OMD and its clients. McAuliffe estimates it at a multimillion-dollar package.

Fox Cable is also placing products into original series, such as last spring's dark comedy Lucky, where Coors Light was featured in several episodes. It wasn't just the official beer, though. Coors was the sponsor of a fictional poker tournament in the show's finale, and the twins from the Coors advertising campaign appeared in a show.

"We work to make it as seamless, fitting, appropriate as we possibly can," says Barry Schwartz, senior vice president of integrated sales and marketing for Fox Cable's entertainment networks. That means consulting with network programmers and the show's producers and creators. If they don't buy a product tie-in as logical, it doesn't work.

Schwartz's group also signed liquor company Diageo to work Smirnoff vodka and Guinness beer into Nip/Tuck
and the new season. The Shield
in March will also have a beer sponsor. All the product-placement deals are tied to larger media buys on Fox Cable.

But inviting agencies and clients into the creative process can cause problems. Advertisers want their products in a positive light. Producers and programmers won't want the placements to seem gratuitous. The products need to fit with characters and storylines as the show evolves.

Veteran media buyer Tom DeCabia, a principal at TDS Marketing, recalls that, several years ago, The WB envisioned a deal with the Gap in which the Dawson's Creek
cast would wear all Gap clothes and Felicity's
star would work at a Gap. But the deal stalled when the Gap wanted script approval.

Advertisers, he says, want their products "used in a light of a hero, not a negative way. There have to be some guarantees where everyone is comfortable."

Contest-based reality is the easiest vehicle for product placement, says Campbell Mithun media buyer John Rash, because the show's certitude is most clear. An advertiser can be comfortable with how the product is perceived. Relationship reality is a little trickier because of the emotional stakes. Scripted programming is the toughest to predict. Explains Rash, "The key becomes to make a product's involvement natural as opposed to a hindrance."