Last night the AMC series Mad Men won a few awards, were nominated for quite a few as well. 30 Rock won a couple as well. As I drove in this morning, a bit on the radio reminded me of something I'd read and discussed a while ago about product integration.
(The discussion was a post I'd written about the Marvel Comic Rush City. That post died in the Year That Wordpress Forgot, so here's an article to bring you up to speed.)
In this Morning Edition story by Neda Ulaby, the idea of product placement became overshadowed by a more cunning and dastardly paradigm; product integration. No longer will the host of the variety show pause to announce that this last half hour of plate twirling and susaphone playing was brought to you by Palmolive. Instead, the stories are now written ABOUT Palmolive...and Heinekin and Ford and Verizon. Writer's now have to create a story that centers around their characters, their worlds, their events and ideals and now the products the producers want placed. Mad Men has it easy because their world is in advertising, but I don't see how most shows will cope without compromising the plots. Think about some of the shows you watch (major network or cable fictions, no reality or game shows) and try and cram a story idea in that features a product. Think about Law & Order and if you could just write in a character that only ate at Subway and have it be a part of the story. Sure, maybe someone was killed in a Subway, it's a good parody of New York life (not a subway but a Subway) and could work.
The trick, however, is to advertise that product - to integrate it. It's not enough just to mention the name, TV shows have been doing that for years. Shows where the cast is outside almost can't help but see cars, gas stations, restaurants, foods that exist in real life. I do remember as a kid how funny it was to see all the knock off brands in TV shows because either the production team wasn't savvy enough to allow a Pepsi to be consumed on air or it just cost to much to do. (I'm fairly sure that's how Shasta got started.) But this isn't about just showing Joey or Chandler drinking a brand named soda, this is about Joey or Chandler talking about the brand named soda and having it be part of the story - and not in a comedic way but in a way that extols the virtues of said product.
Joey - Hey, man. You ready to go?
Chandler - Almost, let me finish eating.
Joey - Hey, is that the new Coke Ultra?
Chandler - Yeah and it's really good. Plus with no sugar and just that touch of ginsing, I don't have to worry about that debilitating sugar crash later.
Joey - Right because when you have that job interview later, you don't want to be twitchy or groggy.
And thus you have product integration.
Yes, it can be more sophisticated than that, but at its very heart, product integration needs to be something that shows you something about the product, not just the face of it. You need the characters to talk about what the product does and have it impact the story, otherwise writers could just be having people watching TV and commenting on the commercial they just watched.
But think about it for a minute and ask yourself, do you talk about products with your friends? Sure you do. You discuss the quality of frozen foods, the signal strength of your cell phone, the options your cable company gives you, the gas mileage your car maintains and a plethora of other qualitative discussions. But you don't talk about those things during childbirth, a robbery, cross examination, escaping from a brain eating villain, shooting island inhabitants or wiring your brain into a comatose FBI agent. When you aren't doing those things, you're talking about those things, that's how these shows work. Let's say you and I were just a couple ordinary people (likely) and we were hanging out at a bar. Not TV worthy (sorry Bochco, it isn't.) But, had we just come in from supressing an alien invasion and needed a beer, that's our down time. Are we going to talk about the beer? Outside of ordering it, no. We're going to talk about how much alien ass we just kicked. As soon as I say, "This Woodchuck amber cider is amazing. You know, I wonder if we can convince these aliens to stop attacking our city based purely on the strength of this fine product alone?" the audience knows they're being handled. And that's the danger.
Individual consumers are smart. They know when they're being sold, but for some reason, the masses react differently. (Which always fascinates me, it means there are a lot of weak minded lemmings out there.) To that end you have to be careful how you push your product or how your ask the creators to push a product. It can't seem hackneyed or ham fisted. It has to be smooth and honestly, if you're going to place a service or good in your show, you should take out a block of commercials as a trade off. Don't give me 20 minutes of ads per hours and then 40 minutes of story about the new HP Camera and Printer combo. If I wanted to watch a solid hour of commercials I'd turn to QVC.
The Marvel comic was called Rush City and it was a promotional experiment. The book only ran in a limited series and it featured a super hero who was tied very much to his Pontiac Rush in the same way James Bond is tied to Aston Martin. Comic book fans were mixed on the idea. A lot of people were pissed at Marvel trying to panhandle the fans via a major auto industry while others felt that as long as the story was ok and you didn't cram the book with more pages of ads, it wouldn't be so bad. (Sadly, the book wasn't that well done which made it even more transparent what a money grab it was.) Which brings us again to the heart of the topic.
People don't like being advertised to. Sure we like the entertainment value of some commercials but you have to know that given the choice we'd surely like there to be no commercials at all. Other entertainment venues are no less immune to this game where to bring the audience a worth while product, the production needs money. In order for the production to get money, it needs to sell advertising. Theater can get by with putting ads in their programs as their allotment comes in the form of ticket sales and donations. Public radio and TV run pledge drives. Even streaming audio/video online either has short ads in between segments or is on a site with ads on them. Product integration will only work if you reduce advertising and you don't oversell the product. The shows have their own little worlds and the stories are about them, not the product you try to sell. If Lost ever became ABOUT airline travel rather than the spookiness of that island, you can bet I'll turn it off.