It was a bad night for Ogakor. in the fifth episode of this year's CBS TV phenomenon Survivor: The Australian Outback, the remaining members of the hapless "tribe" stranded in the Australian outback competed to win a crate full of luxuries like toilet paper, blankets, spices, shampoo and toothpaste. But Ogakor lost out to rival tribe Kucha. "I am getting very frustrated," said Ogakor member Colby Donaldson. "If we don't turn up the heat and turn this runaway train around, there may be a meltdown for the Colbster."
So, while the metaphor-happy Colbster was off under a eucalyptus tree bumming, Kucha was celebrating. Its members descended on the box of goodies. Painted on the crate was a huge red bull's-eye, the unmistakable logo of one of the show's main sponsors, Target (TGT) .
Welcome to the future of television advertising, where old-fashioned commercial breaks are giving way to experiments in "product integration" - advertisers paying to place their goods into the action and plots of TV shows. Target's campaign on Survivor is just one example. Long-distance king AT&T shows up on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Campbell's Soup made a high-profile appearance on daytime chatfest The View (co-hosts Meredith Vieira, Star Jones, Joy Behar and Lisa Ling sang a snippet of the product's theme song). Corona beer and WorldCom Inc. appear on Blind Date. And later this month The Drew Carey Show will devote a two-minute interlude to the videogame SimCity. (Drew and the gang will be transported to a virtual metropolis. Cue laugh track.)Advertisers and TV networks are pushing their marketing messages right into the heart of the programming for one simple reason: Technology is making traditional commercials obsolete. With hundreds of cable and satellite channels, viewers have more reason than ever to surf during commercial breaks. Recording technologies like TiVo (TIVO) and ReplayTV enable couch potatoes to zap commercial breaks altogether. And before long, viewers will be able to order their favorite programs on demand. It will be the end of appointment TV - and probably the death blow to traditional commercial breaks. "If the audience isn't watching your marketing messages, marketers will put them in places where they will," says Brett Shevack, president of Wolf Group New York, an ad agency whose clients include Space.com and Haagen-Dazs.
If all this seems vaguely familiar, it should. In the early days of television, advertisers sponsored whole programs, and their products got plugs throughout each show. The Camel Cavalcade of News doesn't seem so far-off anymore. "TV partnerships are changing,'' says Mark Owens, senior VP at entertainment marketing agency Davie Brown, whose clients include Taco Bell and Pepsi. "We're going back to more of a 1950s model as marketers look to find places for messages viewers can't zap."
Survivor is the poster child for this trend. Every advertiser that buys airtime in the top-rated show's commercial breaks also gets prime placement in the program. Survivor contestants munch Doritos, guzzle Mountain Dew, wear Reebok sneakers and win prizes from Budweiser, Dr. Scholl's, Pontiac and Visa.
The strategy works especially well for targeting the ultimate jaded consumers: teenagers. "Some contestants were really admiring our apparel and footwear on camera," says John Wardley, Reebok's VP of global advertising. "That's the kind of exposure you just can't buy."
Well, actually, you can. Like the other Survivor sponsors, Reebok negotiated its product placement in the show along with its commitment to buy a certain number of commercials. CBS executives will not discuss how much advertisers are paying for the extra exposure.
The phenomenon is spreading, Wardley says. He gets proposals offering to feature Reeboks in programs at least once a week. "There are a lot of producers trying to figure out how they can build this kind of marketing into existing shows," he adds.
The technique goes way beyond the kind of "product placement" common in television and movies for the last few decades. On television, product placement might involve a show staffer slipping a product into a scene as an informal thank-you for buying an ad. These arrangements are generally finalized after scripts are written and advertising deals are struck.
Product integration, on the other hand, is built into television programs early on. In some cases, like Survivor, it's part of the creation of the show itself. In others, like The View or Drew Carey, it shapes individual episodes or segments. And the products aren't just props like a bottle of Snapple or a box of Special K on Seinfeld; they are built into the action of the shows.
Product integration took root and thrived on another kind of reality programming - sports. There, sponsor "enhancements" - from electronically superimposed logos on the playing field to sponsored highlights - are routine. For the last two seasons, ESPN has used video insertion technology to create the illusion of a billboard behind home plate during Major League Baseball telecasts and has also inserted a sponsor's logo inside the goalposts during field-goal and extra-point attempts in college football broadcasts. "In an environment where the 30-second spot is challenged to prove that it's doing as much as it has, we all have to get more inventive about creating ways to get the advertising message across without insulting the viewer," says Ed Erhardt, president of customer marketing for ESPN/ABC Sports.
And therein lies an obvious danger. If networks and advertisers shoehorn too many products and commercial messages into programming, viewers are likely to tune out. Here again, sports may lead the way. In its most recent TV contract signed with four networks, the National Football League barred sponsored highlights and other enhancements - the Bud Light play of the game, the Nike starting lineup - from its telecasts.
Over at CBS, network executives are limiting product integration to Survivor. It's a way to milk its hit show without cluttering the rest of the lineup - for now. "We have other reality shows in development, and none of them have product integration,'' says George Schweitzer, CBS TV's executive VP for marketing.
Marketers are also leery of making too much of a good thing. "It's a new phenomenon for entertainment programming,'' says Owens, the entertainment marketer. "And we are all trying to be careful and not make it as crowded as sports has become."
Still, he admits, "When digital cable gives us the capacity, it's entirely possible we'd recommend a dedicated cable network for a client with a really strong brand." Bring on the Dr. Scholl's Channel.
Ben Hammer contributed to this report.