Great moments in product placement

Great moments in product placement, by Michael Idato - 29th September 2003 (Credit: Sydney Morning Herald)

Profile - Product Placement and Product Endorsements

With all those campy high jinks, you could be forgiven for thinking Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was just a TV show about gay men giving beauty tips to their straight counterparts. In fact, there is much more to it than mere makeover. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is not, says New York magazine, about the "understanding between homos and heteros. It's about mutual understanding between Bravo/NBC and Diesel [jeans] ... and Roberto Cavalli and Ralph Lauren and Via Spiga and Persol and Baskit Underwear."

And Redken and Domain furnishings and Crest Whitestrips, and on it goes.

Welcome to the world of product placement, a minefield of cross-promotion that makes the ghastly early days of TV sponsorship - from America's Texaco Star Theatre to Australia's Ford Superquiz - seem quaintly innocent.

Product placement is not a new concept. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was famously underwritten by The Quaker Oats Company, which was launching a line of Wonka sweets at the time. It happened again, in a slightly more subtle fashion, when the US sweet brand Reese's Pieces featured in E.T.

But now a new generation of TV shows, including Survivor, The Block and Queer Eye, have outsold, outplugged and outbranded their forebears on a massive scale. The various editions of Survivor have had corporate relationships with Doritos, Visa, Mountain Dew and Ford, among others, while Coke's deal with the American version of Pop Idol puts Coke cups in the judge's hands and even requires some of the sets to be painted "Coca-cola red".

In Australia, The Block was a world-class entry in the product placement stakes. Tooheys Extra Dry, Toyota, Freedom Furniture, Panasonic, Black & Decker, Masterfoods and the Commonwealth Bank all paid to have their products positioned prominently in the series.

This year Survivor producer Mark Burnett raised the bar further by creating a show entirely funded by product placement contracts. The Restaurant, a reality series set in a New York restaurant run by chef Rocco DiSpirito, was paid for by the show's three main sponsors, American Express, Mitsubishi Motors and Coors Brewing, in exchange for prominent product placement.

A more insidious example is a lucrative arrangement between the US Government and television producers that grew out of a $US1 billion anti-drugs campaign launched in the late 1990s. In exchange for anti-drug storylines (subject to script approval from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy - and that's no joke), studios and production companies claimed government rebates and advertising deals. Shows that played ball, collecting rebates as high as $US750,000 an episode, included E.R., Beverly Hills 90210, Chicago Hope, The Drew Carey Show and 7th Heaven.

Jay May, president of Los Angeles-based product placement agency Feature This, told the online magazine Salon that this form of advertising was here to stay. After Toy Story, he said, Etch A Sketch sales increased 4500 per cent, Mr Potato Head sales increased 800 per cent and Slinkys, out of business for 10 years, was deluged with 20,000 orders and has sold $US27 million worth of the toy since. "That's a win-win-win for everybody," he says.

Except, perhaps, the viewers.


The Sydney Morning Herald

Talking Television with Greg Tingle

What is Coke?

Mediaman: Sponsors, Clients & Affiliates

Public thank you to Kym Illman, Max Markson, Eva Rinaldi, Bessie Bardot and Geoff Barker

Profile - Product Placement and Product Endorsements