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Sam Ford

This post originally appeared on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on May 6, 2008.

In my final piece this afternoon regarding product placement, I wanted to provide some excerpts from my research on the subject of acceptable and unacceptable placement. This project started as my Master's thesis work (see original submitted version here--today is the one year anniversary of my thesis defens...ahem...consultation), and I have continued editing the manuscript, eyeing eventual publication. Let me know if you have any thoughts, queries, or disagreements.

Product Placement in As the World Turns

In my manuscript chapter entitled "Not So Nice 'n Easy," I wrote about an example from As the World Turns, in which a longtime character, Margo Hughes, notices gray in her hair. Hughes, one of the senior officers of the local police station, talks to her mother-in-law about it at the police station and gets a recommendation to use Nice 'n Easy, which she does. Later, in the same episode, we hear how satisfied she is with the results...

While there was some attempt to use the Nice 'n Easy product integration for humor, viewers and columnists did not find the disruptive audio references to the hair product amusing in the least.

With the blatant audio references to the product, the use of Nice 'n Easy can be distinguished as product integration rather than placement, as mentions of the product got in the way of the progression of the show's plot. In her online "Two Scoops" column on Soap Central, Jennifer Biller wrote, "And how about Margo using Nice 'n Easy to touch up her roots during her hair emergency? This shameless product placement is getting out of control. There are already enough commercials eating up the hour we're supposed to be getting the show. Please, I'm begging, stop wasting precious plot time plugging products."

[ . . . ]

The viewer's need for authenticity and a lack of disruption of the immersive narrative world in whichATWT takes place points to the importance of a strong creative editorial control in creating the most advantageous forms of product placement, the kind of creative control for which the WGA argues. While I think writers should work with networks, production companies, and advertisers to pursue these organic product placements and thus create substantial alternative revenue streams for a show, it would be a fatal error to leave the creative forces behind the show out of the decision-making process. Viewers do not hate product placement in most cases, just blatant, shameless, and poorly executed product placement.

[ . . . ]

In February 2006, another example of product placement on ATWT proved much more palatable for the majority of viewers than the Nice 'n Easy fiasco. Margo came home into her kitchen with a bag of groceries, filled with Procter & Gamble products. Only a few astute viewers even picked up on the fact that the majority of the items in her grocery bag were P&G, but the script called for her to be unloading her groceries while dialogue took place, and the types of items used were completely plausible for a trip to the grocery. The items were never referenced directly in the dialogue, so the scene felt natural--especially compared to the "Brand X" products used too often in daytime television that detract from the realism of the show. Since the fans live in a branded world, a reminder that the Hughes family lives in that same branded world lends extra authenticity to the show, so that the product placement actually adds to the fictional narrative rather than detracting from it. A few fans chimed in who said they were sickened to see P&G products on the show, but the majority of posters in the thread said they found the placement natural and did not feel it disrupted the show.

[ . . . ]

The key, however, is creating an environment between the network, the producers, and the writers in which working in product references is organic, natural to the show and the product, and involves proper compensation to the writing team in some form for the added work involved. Tackling these issues is not easy. Writers must consider whether a product has been written or displayed in a positive light if a company is paying for that time. On the other hand, the writers must also worry about not angering fans by making the product placement distract from the narrative. Fans are explicitly aware of how these texts are constructed and the tensions between quality storytelling and the show's bottom line, and producers must acknowledge the fans' agency in analyzing the production behind these narratives.

CBS Senior Vice-President of Daytime Barbara Bloom said that the network would grant some degree of leeway to P&G in placing its own products within the show, knowing that the company has done moderate amounts of organic product placement of its own brands from time-to-time. However, the network is actively involved in outside product placement projects. On the other hand, ATWT's writing team was not particularly adept with handling these product placements, as was visible from the clumsy handling of the Nice 'n Easy product. ATWT head writer Jean Passanante indicated that the writing team was not pleased with the entire process involved with the Nice 'n Easy placement.

Further, the lack of connection between the mother company's innovations with branding and PGP's use of placing branding indicates a possible corporate disconnect between P&G's innovations with branding and its PGP division. Elana Levine points out that losing a quarter of their audience from the early 1990s to the end of the decade has led to a related drop in budget. For the show she examines,General Hospital, the elimination of remote location shoots has been joined by a reduction in clothing budget so that the 1997 clothing budget was estimated to be the same as the 1986 budget, while the clothing had tripled in cost.

The best chance for these shows to move forward with more effective use of product placement is to iron out the differences between the creative team, the producers, the advertisers, and the networks to create a streamlined way to integrate both P&G products and other relevant products into organic product placements on the show, without interfering with the creative autonomy of the narrative. Viewers are actively interested in seeing the shows remain profitable, since higher profits mean better sets, more funding for the cast, and a greater chance for the continuation of these "narratives without end." 

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