The Reality Match Game

The trick to effective product placement on a reality series is to make it seem like the brand just belongs there. That is often easier said than done.

"When you walk into someone's house, brands are going to be present," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vice president and director, Starcom Entertainment, which put Polaroid together with Fox's Love Cruise last year.

The problem is that, too often, the marketer doesn't enter the process early enough. If an advertiser is on the front end of the creative process, she says, there are probably more opportunities for it to weave the brand into the story. Typically, though, the network sales force goes out to sell a show that has already gone through development.

"We're still in an experimental phase," Caraccioli-Davis says. "There are still ways that we can blend our brands into the storyline of reality programming. I don't think we've reached that point yet. The placements that are currently being done, by and large, interrupt the story as opposed to moving it forward. That's not what we envisioned this form of branded entertainment as. It's rare when you see a brand seamlessly woven into the story."

CBS's Survivor, the show that practically started it all, may exemplify the right mix of marketing and narrative cohesion, but the shows that tend to get it right most often, say Caraccioli-Davis and other industry professionals, are in the home-improvement genre.

"With Sears as a sponsor and main character in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, it was a no-brainer in the sense that they are in the business of home improvement. So it's easier to intrinsically weave them into a show that is about fixing up one's house," says David Goldberg, president of Endemol USA, the Los Angeles-based production company that created Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Big Brother and Fear Factor.

"Extreme Makeover was tailor-made for a company like Sears," he says. "The positive message, which dealt with home improvement, was very important to Sears."

If a reality show meets the advertisers' needs or the brand association is right, it's easier to get the marketer involved at the beginning. But sometimes, as with gross-out show Fear Factor, it takes critical mass, Goldberg says. What sponsor can you get? Pepto-Bismol?

"Clearly, at the start of Fear Factor, no one was falling over themselves to be a part of it," he says. "But there's no arguing with success, and so advertisers have really begun to respond to it." Now Toyota is aligned with the show, giving away cars to Fear Factor contestants, and Internet-service provider Netzero has its brand stamped on the show's video stopwatch.

As for keeping advertisers interested—aside from simply having great ratings—Goldberg says network execs, producers and marketers have to be on the same page. "I don't think there is one set model to define the relationship between producers and advertisers," he says. "You also have to add the network factor into that relationship. In some cases, the network will establish the relationship and bring the producer in. Sometimes, we will bring in an advertiser to the show. Sometimes, once the show is up and running, we'll talk to advertisers about product-placement opportunities."

Industry observers say that, in general, the process begins with the head of network sales and his or her team trying to entice advertisers with large budgets into participating in such a show. But it's not always a successful match.

"They'll find brands that plan to have money in the marketplace at the time that a show is being unveiled, but the brands might not have anything to do with what's relevant for the producer and the show," says Caraccioli-Davis. "And so the producer is saddled with this product that he somehow has to work into this show."

Everybody wants to be a producer, says Chris Simon, CBS executive vice president of network sales. "Advertisers often have great ideas, since it is their brand we're talking about," he says. "We—the network, the producers and the advertisers—sit around and brainstorm and learn about what's important: if it's a new product that's being launched, for instance. We learn about the product, we learn about the brand. We try to figure out where best to fit it."

After those issues are settled comes the tough part: scheduling. Advertisers accustomed to an ad launch for a specific product at a certain time are sometimes surprised when their show is somehow preempted or switched abruptly, a feature of reality shows that are often plugged into schedules to fill in for failing shows.

"Wife Swap, for example, was in development for two years," says Starcom's Caraccioli-Davis, about the ABC show. "If you were a brand that planned to be on this summer and then it's moved to fall, it disrupts a lot of the marketing. That's the one disconnect in this whole Madison & Vine dynamic. Advertising companies are accustomed to carefully planned launches. Reality series sometimes have a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants quality."