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Product placement and branded entertainment are appealing to marketers for a very good reason - having your product woven into a television show, for instance, potentially offers some very compelling advantages over traditional advertising, especially in the age of the Tivo.
According to research firm PQ Media, spending on branded entertainment (it includes product placement in its definition of "branded entertainment") grew 14% in 2007 and hit $22.3bn.
Clearly, many marketers believe product placement and branded entertainment are great (despite the fact that measuring results is still often difficult) and their willingness to spend in these areas makes them a bright spot for media companies, especially for those that find themselves under increasing pressure in other areas.
But is it possible that marketers and content producers will kill the goose that laid the (perceived) golden egg?
While media companies have been quick to make it clear that there needs to be a balance between their creative "integrity" and the marketer's desire to reach consumers in whatever fashion is perceived to be most effective, a recent post by Wayne Friedman on MediaPost's TV Watch blog highlights that a belief in the viability of this balance may be little more than idealism.
He notes that Tim Kring, executive producer of the hit NBC show "Heroes," recently lamented the fact that the marketers (and their executive advocates within content producing companies) are gaining too much control:
"...the big fear for us is that when that material and content start to be generated by people who are outside the main or inner core of the creative force of a show, you have all sorts of pitfalls and things that can go wrong.
"You throw a little bit of sponsorship and product placement into the show and you have a recipe for all kinds of serious problems."
As Friedman points out:
"It seems as if that army of executives is bothering Kring more and more, doing advertising/brand entertainment deals..."
While there is no doubt that a considerable amount of product placement and branded entertainment is done subtly and tastefully, the fact that those in charge of producing content are feeling pressured is not a good sign.
Of course, companies like NBC are primarily in the business of creating content in order to build up an audience that can be sold to marketers.
As such, it would be naive not to expect product placement and branded entertainment deals to get more attention if that's what marketers are asking for.
Yet as I pointed out in my post yesterday, the effectiveness of marketing that appears in or alongside content is logically correlated with the perceived quality of the content.
Which begs the question - is it possible that if product placement and branded entertainment deals start dictating how content producers create content, content quality will suffer, eventually leading to a decline in the results the very marketers who demanded those deals achieve?
I don't think this is too far-fetched and it's something that both media companies and marketers need to consider.
After all, media companies understand content. Marketers don't and if media companies let marketers tell them how do their job, the biggest threat to media companies may ironically be their marketer clients.
The big question is - will media companies set boundaries and be able to maintain balance as marketers demand more from product placement and branded entertainment deals (and entice with dollar signs)? Or will they capitulate and let the fox into the henhouse?
Frankly, I suspect that the smart media companies will be successful in striking a balance that keeps content quality high and marketers happy.
But I also suspect that there will be media companies driven more by short-term returns that will be willing to risk their long-term success by handing over the reins to Madison Avenue.
This will be a fascinating space to watch.