After El Pollo Loco was featured in an episode of “The Apprentice” last year, I interviewed president and chief executive Stephen Carley about the topic of product placement.
I asked whether product placement was getting out of hand, and he said that when done appropriately and thoughtfully, TV viewers would accept it. He added: “Ham-handedness that interrupts the story or distracts from the episode will be rejected.”
Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza and Burger King also were integrated into contestants’ challenges on “The Apprentice.” Similarly, signature products of the Pizza Patrón chain have appeared in popular Spanish-language TV shows. During an episode of “The West Wing,” the White House staff ordered dinner from Panda Express. The Coffee Beanery has had product placements in a variety of shows. Shoes for Crews, which supplies footwear for restaurant kitchen employees, was featured last year on “Hell’s Kitchen.”
TV product placements are considered “branded entertainment,” a category that also includes event sponsorships, movies and webisodes.
Overall spending on branded entertainment rose 14.7 percent to $22.3 billion in 2007 and is expected to increase 13.9 percent this year, according to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn.-based research firm. Paid product placements on TV increased 33.7 percent to $2.9 billion in 2007.
Restaurant chains, like all marketers, appreciate the brand awareness that product placements generate. TV viewers can’t skip past product placements as they do with commercials. Carley told me that El Pollo Loco “got tremendous branding awareness on the national level” from its role on TV.
Now, however, if the Federal Communications Commission gets its way, it is possible that we’ll see the interruption and distraction that Carley mentioned, caused not by the product placements themselves but by a more blatant way the products’ marketers are identified.
The FCC says branded entertainment has become “increasingly prevalent,” and it wants longer, more visible on-screen disclosure of product placements. That opens the possibility to cluttering the screen with crawls at the bottom or even with pop-ups to identify the product and perhaps the company that markets it.
“I believe it is important for consumers to know when someone is trying to sell them something,” FCC chairman Kevin J. Martin said in a statement.
Opponents say current guidelines require sufficient disclosure of program sponsors. More intrusive sponsorship identification would disrupt programs, turn viewers away and diminish the brand-building power of product placement that appeals to marketers in the first place.
The FCC announced its proposal in June. In late September, the four major broadcast networks, media companies and advertising associations filed a joint response opposing new guidelines. In addition to saying current standards are enough, they contend the FCC hasn’t proved that consumers are harmed by product placement.
FCC commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein seems to think all viewers—especially children—are harmed by all forms of branded entertainment. His statement on the issue reads in part, “Many current practices fly in the face of viewers’ legal right to know who is pitching to them.”
Adelstein clearly believes the brief messages that identify sponsors are worthless.
“If it takes a magnifying glass to see a tiny acknowledgment whizzing by the screen at the end of a show, that is evading the spirit of the law,” he said.
The FCC commissioners apparently believe they’re looking out for the welfare of citizens, shielding them from the danger of being exposed to product placements without adequate warning.
In an episode of “The Office,” Steve Carell’s character, Michael Scott, hosted the company’s annual awards banquet in a Chili’s restaurant. In another episode he met a client there.
Judging from a lack of news reports at the time, no actual viewers were harmed by watching scenes set inside a Chili’s restaurant.