Product placement ads more noticeable in television shows

Tuesday, May 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DETROIT (AP) _ When gaunt, undernourished Colby Donaldson took his first look at the Pontiac Aztek sports utility vehicle he won on ``Survivor,'' he offered a rhapsody of praise.

``How wild is this thing!'' he exclaimed.

An excited new car owner emoting on television's top-rated show _ normally the type of great publicity money can't buy. It did for General Motors, however.

You don't have to wait for commercial breaks to see ads on TV anymore. The trend toward product placement _ the subtle insertion of plugs in the body of television shows _ has become more noticeable in prime-time.

Advertisers are looking for more creative ways to get their messages across, concerned that the proliferation of channels and the use of video recorders is making it easier than ever for viewers to avoid traditional commercial breaks.

The growth in ``reality'' programming makes this easier. ABC, which subtly promotes AT&T every time Regis Philbin phones a friend on ``Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'' has let Madison Avenue know of several product placement opportunities on its upcoming show ``The Runner.''

The program will feature contestants trying to travel across the country undetected while performing various tasks. They might be given a car, or a cellular phone, or asked to buy food in a chain restaurant; potential sponsors can bid on having their products included.

``We're not going to commercialize the hell out of the show,'' said Mike Shaw, president of sales for ABC. ``It's a television show, first and foremost. But, organically, we have the opportunity that one or two of these missions can involve one of our clients' locations.''

In one case, a network is trying to make commercial breaks more special. Fox ran 1970s-era commercials for Volkswagen, Coca Cola, Dr Pepper, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Excedrin during ``That '70s Show'' on Tuesday. The ads were old, but the products are still current.

Product placement has been around for decades in television, and has been particularly prevalent in sports programming. But its use was relatively limited in prime-time entertainment.

In addition to the Aztek awarded Thursday, ``Survivor'' has included product placements for Bud Light, Target and Doritos. Fed to hungry contestants, the Doritos were downed as if slathered with caviar.

Product placements are made ``where appropriate and only if it is organic to the show and appropriate to its content,'' CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said.

When Donaldson spied his new Aztek, he loved the interior, he loved the exterior, he loved the paint, he loved the tent that attaches to the rear cargo area converting the vehicle into a little camper. He even got to sleep under the SUV's big-top _ as opposed to the cold, hard ground.

All this for a vehicle that many auto critics described as an ugly disaster.

GM has been a paying customer on ``Survivor'' since its debut last summer, said Jim Sloan, the assistant brand manager for Aztek. During the first season, Aztek appearances were limited to paid commercials.

GM is giving another Aztek to the ``Survivor'' winner later this week _ and presenting the keys on ``The Early Show'' on CBS.

GM won't reveal how much it pays for its ``Survivor'' sponsorship.

Sloan said the SUV is still selling only about 2,500 units a month _ though he said it might not have sold even that many without the exposure. GM's goal is to sell at least 4,000 Azteks a month.

Dana Boyle of Evans Pontiac in Dallas said that while the dealership has sold only about 25 Azteks, ``most every customer has mentioned Survivor.''

Commercial Alert, an organization that advocates less commercialism on television, calls the trend toward product placement ``ad creep.''

``The entire TV business is getting desperate for advertising dollars,'' said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert. ``It's a race to the bottom to stuff advertising in every nook and cranny.''

Shaw said ABC will be careful not to oversaturate ``The Runner'' with product placements. Out of more than two dozen ``missions'' given to contestants, only about six or seven will involve specific products, he said.

``It's not going to feel like this was added,'' he said.