PR can take lead in product placement

The recent up-fronts in New York - the week-long event where the major TV networks announce their program lineups for the following season - also provided a good opportunity to witness a number of trends in entertainment.

The recent up-fronts in New York - the week-long event where the major TV networks announce their program lineups for the following season - also provided a good opportunity to witness a number of trends in entertainment.

For the first time, broadcasters really acknowledged all of the different ways audiences view their programs. Many up-front presentations highlighted shows on the Internet, cell phones, and other portable devices.

Yet some of most telling trends were happening far away from the spotlight of those presentations, in meetings between networks and marketers.

Product placement in TV shows is nothing new. Yet as consumers become more wary and resentful of marketers' obtrusive presence on their favorite TV programs, carefully crafted product integration into the plots of popular TV shows is becoming a more popular practice.

In fact, the growth of this tactic and the number of product integration deals at this year's up-fronts were said to have been so prevalent that it sparked the Writers Guild of America West and top show runners to hold a press conference about their concerns about how such agreements are affecting the quality and credibility of TV shows.

Reality television shows, including Survivor, The Apprentice, and American Idol have been at the forefront of product integration in TV, though those brand mentions and inclusions in tasks or rewards often carry a hefty fee.

However, for every Survivor there's The Sopranos, a series that reportedly does not participate in traditional fee product placement.

Yet to anyone who has watched recent episodes, the blatant brand mentions are almost too numerous to count. From Carmela's new Porsche Cayenne to Tony's Cingular wireless carrier, such unpaid mentions demonstrate that perhaps those who can benefit most from this new wave of product placement are those with extensive experience in earning media for clients: PR firms.

"We need to negotiate much more holistic branding opportunities that integrate both PR, the promotional aspect, and the traditional advertising discipline," says Ken Schaefer, president of Blanchard Schaefer Advertising & Public Relations, which has focused a lot of attention on negotiating unpaid placements for such clients as Mystic Tan. "We believe there is a massive opportunity for PR firms to get very involved in the up-front portion of the product-placement game."

While several large PR agencies have separate product-placement divisions, Schaefer says negotiating unpaid product integration should be part of every PR pro's services because it involves the same relationship-building skills that are at the core of PR.

"There is absolutely no reason why a PR firm should not be looking at adding product placement as [part of] what they offer to their clients," he says. "The skill set needed to do product placement is so closely aligned with those needed to be an effective media relations firm. It's about creating relevance and building relationships.

"What's the difference between pitching your client opportunity to an editor of a national publication versus pitching your client opportunity to a producer?" he continues. "There's none."

But a PR firm's execution of product integration programs needn't be limited to the broadcast platforms. As the up-fronts themselves showed, TV programmers are expanding to new platforms. Along with that move come branding opportunities that could very well be led by smart PR agencies.

"The traditional model of this ad-based, 30-second spot world is clearly outdated," says Peter Land, MD at Edelman. "For PR firms and the marketing communications community in general, the creativity window is open more widely than it has ever been before."

Such an environment puts the onus on PR firms to develop content and branding ideas for their clients. "If the PR firm has the authority now to come with that recommendation," says Land, "they might end up driving the program."

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