There’s nothing like a bit of brazen product placement to renew the age-old debate about the separation of art and commerce. A quick look back, however, reveals that brand partnerships are not such a recent innovation but in fact helped build the mediums of radio, television and film. Reese’s Pieces–eating extraterrestrials and Hennessey-swilling hip-hop artists may be the most recent manifestations of branded entertainment, but let’s not underestimate the ingenuity of marketing experts.
Although big-budget megamusicals such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables closed the curtain on the golden age of musical theater, they marked only the beginning of Broadway’s creative nadir. Sinking it further was Walt Disney’s 1993 arrival in Times Square, which signaled a new direction both for the iconic but seedy crossroads and for Broadway shows. Disney leased the dilapidated, city-owned New Amsterdam Theatre, an art nouveau historical landmark that, after nearly four years of renovations, became home to The Lion King.
In 2012 The Lion King became the highest-grossing stage musical in history. But it’s much more than a Broadway show: It is part of a massive entertainment franchise developed from Disney’s original 1994 hit animated film. Aside from two direct-to-DVD sequels and the stage production, The Lion King is a story told across multiple platforms, including video games, television shows, an “edutainment” film, a Disney parade and endless merchandising. The Lion King’s overwhelming success has presented a new model for schmaltzy Broadway spectaculars inspired by such lucrative film franchises as Legally Blonde and Spider-Man, with their ample opportunities for media tie-ins and commemorative T-shirts displayed in box office windows.
The year 2005 was a watershed moment for product placement on Broadway, with the opening of the Snapple Theater, the news that Monty Python spoof Spamalot would be working with sponsor Hormel to create collector’s edition Spam products, and word that a new production of Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity would feature a character drinking Gran Centenario tequila instead of the generic double scotch from the original script. These harbingers of a new Broadway economy were largely defended on the grounds that such productions were risky investments, especially with budgets swelling over the past 30 years. But in truth, Broadway was blurring the line between art and commerce long before it broke out the tequila shots.
Why did Broadway budgets grow so big in the first place? Look only to the 1980s pop operas by Andrew Lloyd Weber and the French team of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, which require massive casts, flashy special effects, extensive marketing campaigns and elaborate merchandising strategies. The breakout success of these shows attracted large corporations like Disney and major motion picture studios holding tried-and-true entertainment franchises ripe for adaptation. Today, compared with Broadway’s branded entertainment, product placement in TV and movies is small potatoes.
Product placement lets advertisers zero in on the demographics they most want to target. For example, when James Bond (played by Daniel Craig) uses a sleek Sony camera phone in 2012’s Skyfall, the marketer is counting on young, tech-savvy men with lots of disposable income to go out and buy one. Studies suggest this established audience is likely to engage with this particular message more enthusiastically than, say, female enthusiasts watching a rom-com.
Wedging a brand’s recognizable gadget into a blockbuster film is like matching the right ad to the right online content. Google AdWords—the search engine giant’s chief revenue stream—works on this very principle. Namely, Google ensures its sponsors’ ads will appear to target audiences, no matter what they may be looking for on the web. The strategy comes from an old-school marketer, the Yellow Pages, which places ads next to relevant business listings sorted by category. Of course, Google employs its own proprietary algorithm and demographic research to make sure AdWords actually works. That Google should be proficient at optimizing ad placement is no surprise: The company’s initial success as a search engine was largely the result of its ability to return “uncanny” results.
Product placement is generally considered a recent innovation, but brand tie-ins have been around since the inception of movie magic. Consider the Lumière brothers, cinema pioneers who worked with Lever Brothers soap manufacturers in the 1890s to produce their early short films. The first president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Will Hays, thought movies were a great vehicle for promoting and exporting U.S.-made goods, but in the 1920s product placement in films became more controversial and less common. Not so on the radio dial, where companies such as Lever and Procter & Gamble helped develop the medium’s commercial potential by sponsoring certain programs. This is how serial dramas came to be called “soaps.”
When the three national radio networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) experimented with television broadcasting in the 1940s, they carried this sponsorship model with them. One of CBS’s earliest and most popular comedy dramas, Mama, which told the story of a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the 1910s, was sponsored exclusively by Maxwell House. At the end of every show, a character brewed a fresh pot while the narrator related the virtues of good coffee to the moral of that week’s episode.
Dedicated commercial breaks on network television once acted as a cordon sanitaire, segregating ads from programs and allowing producers to build stories without constraint—theoretically, at least (conservative sponsors still object to and censor content). But by the 1980s audiences had become accustomed to product appearances in such movies as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Speak & Spell, Reese’s Pieces) and the Back to the Future trilogy (Pepsi, Nike, 7-Eleven and good old Maxwell House). In the 1990s, TV viewers embraced the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer launches a Junior Mint into his friend’s abdominal cavity during surgery. It was a victory for the candy, which had taken a risk with its image.
Watching TV on Netflix or DVR, with its all-important fast-forward function, essentially upends the commercial break. So in shows such as Arrested Development and 30 Rock producers and advertisers look for irreverent opportunities to insert brands into the content (as when Liz Lemon randomly praises Verizon phones and services, then delivers a line right to the camera: “Can we have our money now?”). Shows such as The Apprentice and Mad Men routinely build an entire story line around a featured product, effectively transforming the content into an hour-long ad.
Although the demise of network television had been predicted ever since the advent of the videocassette recorder (VCR), it was the 1999 introduction of the digital video recorder (DVR) that ultimately threatened the networks’ dominance. The DVR allows consumers to skip commercials effortlessly and watch their favorite programs whenever and wherever they want. This is sensational for the viewer but less so for the networks, which had previously capitalized on must-see “appointment TV” that held audiences captive through an entire show—commercials and all.
Networks reacted to early DVRs with lawsuits and were able to stall some commercial-skipping devices. But with Dish Network’s introduction of their AutoHop service in 2012, viewers can automatically bypass ads without even hitting fast-forward. Anticipating this reality for the past decade, networks have experimented with animated on-screen pop-ups and increased product placement inside shows. They have also tried to re-create the age of appointment TV with live-broadcast reality shows, which rely on interactive audience participation and real-time social media integration. In order for their votes to count, home viewers must watch talent contests such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars at the time of broadcast, not the following day.
In 2010 it looked as if we were one step closer to a complete unified theory of media—insiders term this convergence—with the announcement of Google TV, the tech giant’s foray into television. But though Google’s Midas touch extended to its search engine, email and satellite maps, its attempt to revolutionize TV fell flat. Early adopters and reviewers complained about confusing platforms and malfunctioning operating systems. Worse still, all four major networks blocked access to their programming from any device using Google TV.
Google has claimed it wants to enhance rather than replace existing cable broadcasting, so viewers can access both internet content and traditional television programs from one home entertainment system. Of course, network execs can be pardoned for their skepticism, given that Google’s search engine is everyone’s first stop on the hunt for streaming video. Though often illegal, streaming allows audiences to circumvent cable and watch videos online, meaning more skipped commercials and a further crippling of network TV’s age-old revenue source. So wherever TV is served up in the future—digital cable, Netflix or platforms like Google TV—branded entertainment will certainly be on the menu.