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When does a TV show become an infomercial?

We're all familiar with branded content and are used to seeing brands featuring in our favourite TV shows. But when does it become too much? Some US groups reckon the line has been reached when a script is crafted around a brand, and they reckon branded content needs to be curbed.

A coalition* of 23 advocacy and consumer groups in the United States have urged that country's Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on product placement and product integration. The group maintains that product integration and placement are happening too frequently, turning broadcast television shows into infomercials, and consumers are not immediately made aware.

In the letter sent to FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin, the coalition detailed the rise in television programming of both product placement and integration wherein dialogue, scenes and episodes are scripted around a branded product. The letter also notes marketers, from junk food to alcohol, have exploited the lack of regulation concerning product integration.

The letter states that Nielsen reports an overall 13% increase in the number of product placement occurrences in primetime broadcast network television in 2007, with the top 10 programs scoring 25,950 placements. Cable programming has become more saturated with 163,737 occurrences in the top 10 shows. Fans of American Idol, including millions of 2-to-11-year-olds, were bombarded with 4,151 product placements in the first 38 episodes this year. Branded content on the show jumped 19%, to a total of 545 minutes, or 14 minutes per episode on average.

Martin circulated an NPRM among the FCC members in September. Later that month, calling inadequately disclosed product placement "unfair and deceptive," Congressmen Edward Markey and Henry Waxman commended the chairman for initiating the NPRM and urged prompt adoption of the measure.

In December, however, three advertising industry trade groups urged the FCC to downgrade the NPRM to a Notice of Inquiry (NOI), an investigative procedure that cannot lead to rulemaking. The commission has yet announced whether it will adopt an NPRM or an NOI.

The coalition urges the FCC to adopt an NPRM that includes cable and satellite television. Failure to include cable/satellite television in the NPRM, the letter argued, "would create a sanctuary for unfair and deceptive practices."

In the drama American Dreams, the writers were told to rewrite several scenes to give Oreo cookies a more prominent role, according to Josh Golin, associate director for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), which organised the letter. "It's happening more frequently," he says. "It's not that a character is picking up a Coca-Cola, but it's becoming a major plot point."

Industry insiders who prefer to remain anonymous admit it's scary when a brand's financial investment in a show gets them to rewrite the scene around a product.

Golin says, "We want to see full disclosure when it's happening, not after the fact at the end of the show." Brands complete for paid sequences in reality shows where products are written into the plot. The product plays a part in the narrative of the show. In a third example, he says, Gossip Girl ran almost an entire show around Victoria's Secret underwear.

Some don't believe product placement and integration has gone haywire, but the industry needs a governing body to keep an eye on things. "The reality is if I'm watching a show and I feel like every other second they try to hock a brand to me, I'm going to flip the channel," says Wes Brown, partner at research firm Iceology. "That's the beauty of choice."

It gets out of hand when the product placement doesn't work. When Procter & Gamble just try to find another avenue to put detergent in front of my eyes and they don't care how it fits in with the story, they just want to know how much it will cost for the box to be in the front when mom opens the pantry.

It's not likely product placement and brand integration will go away any time soon. The practice has been around since the beginning of broadcast television in the US. In the 1960s, brands sponsored the entire show sandwiched between two commercials. Conventional advertising has lost some of its effectiveness. People tune out for 60 to 120 seconds between scenes and digital video recorders (DVR) allow consumers to fast forward through commercials, so brands are trying to reach consumers any way they can.

*The coalition includes agencies such as The Benton Foundation, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, Dads and Daughters, Free Press, Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Parents for Ethical Marketing, Parents Television Council, and The Praxis Project.

Article courtesy of MediaPost

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