Does sex sell? Can subliminal advertising really influence our behavior? The results of a major scientific study are revealed in "Buy-ology." In this excerpt, author and marketing expert Martin Lindstrom looks at product placement in TV shows and movies.
This must be the place
Product placement, "American Idol," and Ford’s multimillion-dollar mistake
Remember that commercial you saw on "American Idol" two nights ago? The one where the tractor salesman was scarfing down those fish sticks, and that kind-of-funny cell phone ad with those two quacking ducks ...
Yeah, me neither. As a matter of fact, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner two nights ago. Steak? Lasagna? Fettucine Alfredo? A Caesar salad? Maybe I forgot to eat. The point is, I can’t recall — just as I have no recollection of the third man who landed on the moon, or the fourth person who summited Mt. Everest.
By the time we reach the age of sixty-six, most of us will have seen approximately two million television commercials. Time-wise, that’s the equivalent of watching eight hours of ads seven days a week for six years straight. In 1965 a typical consumer had a 34 percent recall of those ads. In 1990, that figure had fallen to 8 percent. A 2007 ACNielsen phone survey of one thousand consumers found that the average person could name a mere 2.21 commercials of those they had ever seen, ever, period.Today, if I ask most people what companies sponsored their favorite TV shows — say, "Lost"or "House" or "The Office" — their faces go blank. They can’t remember a single one. I don’t blame them. Goldfish, I read once, have a working memory of approximately seven seconds — so every seven seconds, they start their lives all over again. Reminds me of the way I feel when I watch TV commercials.
A couple of reasons for this jump out at me right away. The first and most obvious is today’s fast-moving, ever-changing, always-on media assault. The Internet with its pop-ups and banner ads, cable TV, twenty-four-hour news stations, newspapers, magazines, catalogs, e-mail, iPods, pod-casts, instant messaging, text-messaging, and computer and video games are all vying for our increasingly finite and worn-out attention spans. As a result, the filtering system in our brains has grown thick and self-protective. We’re less and less able to recall what we saw on TV just this morning, forget about a couple of nights ago.
Another no less important factor behind our amnesia is the pervasive lack of originality on the part of advertisers. Their reasoning is simple: If what we’ve been doing has worked for years, why shouldn’t we just keep on doing it? Which is a little like saying, if I’m a baseball player who’s been striking out regularly for the past decade, why should I bother changing my swing, or altering my stance, or gripping the bat a little differently? A few years ago, I conducted a small experiment — a little narrower in scope than my brain-scan experiment — on my own. I taped sixty different TV car commercials produced by twenty different automotive companies. Each one had been running on TV for the past two years. Each one had a scene in which the new, shiny, and seemingly driverless car guns its way around a hairpin turn in the desert, sending up a dramatic little cloud of dust — poof. The thing is, though the make of car might have differed, that scene was exactly the same in every single commercial. Same swerve. Same turn. Same desert. Same dust cloud. Just for fun, I created a montage of these breathtakingly unmemorable moments on a two-minute reel, to see if I could tell which car was a Toyota, a Nissan, a Honda, an Audi, or a Subaru. And indeed, when I watched the tape, turns out I was stumped. I couldn’t tell one car from the other.
It was, and is, a depressingly true-to-life example of what’s going on today in TV commercials. There’s no originality out there — it’s too risky. Uncreative companies are simply imitating other uncreative companies. In the end, everyone’s a loser because we as TV viewers can’t tell one brand from the next. We watch commercial after commercial, but the only thing we’re left with, if they’ve registered in our memories at all, is the image of a shiny, anonymous car and a handful of dust.
On June 11, 2002, a popular British TV show known as "Pop Idol"made the transatlantic crossing to the United States, and in its retitled debut as "American Idol"became one of the most popular and successful shows in American television history virtually overnight. (The story goes that it never would have been aired in the United States if Rupert Murdoch’s daughter, a huge fan of the show, hadn’t persuaded her father to take a chance on it. She knew what she was doing.)
By now, most of us know how the show works. In its first few weeks, the producers and cast of "American Idol" city-hop around the United States, auditioning aspiring singers whose talent levels range from expert-but-needs-work, to promising, to at times wincingly bad. Over the course of the season, the show’s three judges eliminate all but twenty-four contestants, until finally the home-viewing audience gets the chance to vote each week, with the contestant with the fewest votes getting kicked off. At the end of the season, the last one standing becomes the next American Idol.
But what do aspiring singers, snarky judges, and dreams of fame, glory, and stardom have to do with the next part of our study? Everything. Until now, I’d only suspected that traditional advertising and marketing strategies like commercials and product placement didn’t work — but now it was time to put them to the ultimate test.
"American Idol" has three main sponsors, Cingular Wireless (which has since been bought by AT&T, but I’ll refer to it in this chapter as Cingular because that was its name at the time the ads ran), the Ford Motor Company, and Coca-Cola, each of whom fork over an estimated $26 million annually to have their brands featured on one of the highest-rated shows in television history.
And this is only a small part of an enormous and expensive worldwide industry. According to a study conducted by PQ Media, in 2006, companies paid a total of $3.36 billion globally to have their products featured in various TV shows, music videos, and movies. In 2007, this increased to $4.38 billion and is predicted to reach a whopping $7.6 billion by 2010.That’s a whole lot of money, given that this would be the first time that the effectiveness of product placement has ever been scientifically tested or validated. As I mentioned, I can’t remember what I ate for dinner the other night, much less the Honda commercial I saw on TV yesterday. So who’s to say I’ll remember what soft drink Simon Cowell was sipping as he leaned forward, eyes gleaming, to lambaste yet another poor soul’s rendition of Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’ ”?
As viewers, we used to be able to tell the difference between products that somehow play a role or part in a TV show or movie (known in advertising circles as Product Integration) and the standard thirty-second advertising spots that run during the commercial breaks (known as, well, commercials). But increasingly, these two kinds of ads are becoming harder and harder to separate.
On "American Idol,"Coke and Cingular Wireless not only run thirty-second ads during commercial breaks, they also feature their products prominently during the show itself. (When asked by a fellow judge if he liked a contestant’s song during the February 21, 2008, broadcast, Simon commented, “How much I love Coca-Cola!” — and then took a sip.) The three judges all keep cups of America’s most iconic soft drink in front of them, and both the judges and the contestants sit on chairs or couches with rounded contours specifically designed to look like a bottle of Coca-Cola. Before and after their auditions, contestants enter (or exit in a foul-mouthed rage) a room whose walls are painted a chirpy, unmistakable Coca-Cola red. Whether through semi-subtle imagery or traditional advertising spots, Coca-Cola is present approximately 60 percent of the time on "American Idol."
Cingular, too, pops up repeatedly throughout the show, though to a lesser extent. As the host, Ryan Seacrest, repeatedly reminds us, viewers can dial in, or vote for their favorite contestant via text-message, from a Cingular Wireless cell phone — the only carrier that permits "Idol" voting via text-messaging (text messages from other cell phone providers are evidently discarded, meaning you either have to call in for a fee or forever hold your peace). What’s more, the Cingular logo — which looks like an orange cat splattered on a road — shows up alongside every set of phone and text-messaging numbers shown onscreen.And to further cement the relationship between the show and the brand, in 2006 Cingular announced it would begin offering ring tones of live performances from the previous night’s show to download to their mobile phones. The cost: $2.95.
Of the show’s three main sponsors, Ford is the only advertiser that doesn’t share an actual stage with the contestants. Ford’s $26 million goes only toward traditional thirty-second ad spots (though in 2006 Ford announced that it had hired American Idol Taylor Hicks — the gray-haired guy — to record a relentlessly up-tempo, feel-good song for both TV and radio entitled “Possibilities” to promote the company’s new “Drive On Us” end-of-year sales event). During the show’s sixth season, Ford also produced original music videos featuring the company’s cars which ran during the commercial breaks in each of the final eleven shows and partnered with the "American Idol"Web site for a weekly sweepstakes promotion.
What’s with this relentless advertising assault? In part, it can be attributed to advertisers’ calculated end-run against popular new technologies like TiVo, which allows viewers to skip over the TV commercials and watch their favorite shows without interruption. “The shift from programmer- to consumer-controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years,” Jeff Gaspin, the president of NBC Universal Television Group, has been quoted as saying.In essence, sponsors are letting us know that it’s futile to hide, duck, dodge, fast-forward, or take an extended bathroom break: they’ll get to us somehow.
But do they? Do all these meticulously planned, shrewdly placed products really penetrate our long-term memory and leave any lasting impression on us at all? Or are they what I like to call “wallpaper” ads — instantly forgettable, the advertising equivalent of elevator music? That’s what the next part of our brain study would find out.
The setup was simple. Our four hundred carefully chosen subjects were each fitted with a black, turban-like cap wired with a dozen electrodes that resembled tea candles. Researchers then adjusted and looped the wires over their heads, and finally topped off the ensemble with a pair of viewing goggles. In their SST garb, our study subjects looked like random members of an affable Roswell, New Mexico, cult, or a bunch of participants at a psychic fair.
But there was nothing otherworldly or left-to-chance about this study, the first ever to assess the power (or pointlessness) of this billion-dollar product placement industry. The electrodes had been positioned over specific portions of our subjects’ brains so that from several feet away, behind a pane of glass, the research team could view — and mathematically measure — exactly what their brain waves were doing in real time. Among other things, SST could measure the degree of subjects’ emotional engagement (how interested they were in what they were watching), memory (what parts of what they were watching were penetrating long-term memory), and approach and withdraw (what attracted or repelled them about the visual image). Or in the head researcher Professor Silberstein’s words, SST would reveal “how different parts of the brain talk to one another.”
The subjects took their seats in a darkened room, and the curtains went up.
Product placement in movies is as old as the medium itself. Even the pioneering Lumiere brothers, two of the world’s first filmmakers, included several appearances of Lever’s sunlight soap in their early short films. Turns out, they had an associate on staff who moonlighted as a publicist for Lever Brothers (now Unilever). But product placement truly began to blossom in the 1930s. In 1932, White Owl Cigars provided $250,000 worth of advertising for the 1932 film "Scar-face,"on the condition that star Paul Muni would smoke them in the movie. By the mid-1940s, it was rare to see a kitchen in a Warner Brothers film that didn’t have a spanking-new General Electric refrigerator, or a love story that didn’t end in a man presenting a woman with diamonds in a romantic display of undying devotion — the diamonds, of course, being sponsored by the DeBeers Company.
Still, product placement as most of us know it today can be traced back to a little alien. For those who’ve never seen Steven Spielberg’s "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,"the story revolves around a solitary, fatherless boy named Elliott who discovers an extraordinary-looking creature living in the woods behind his house. To lure it out of hiding, the boy tactically places individual pieces of candy — instantly recognizable as Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces — along the path from the forest leading into his house.
But Spielberg didn’t choose this particular candy at random. The director first approached the Mars Company, the makers of M&Ms, to ask if they’d be willing to pay to have their product featured in the film. After they turned him down, Hershey agreed to step in, offering their Reese’s Pieces as a substitute. A very smart corporate decision, as it turns out — a week after the movie’s debut, sales of Reese’s Pieces tripled, and within a couple of months of its release, more than eight hundred cinemas across the country began stocking Reese’s Pieces in their concession stands for the first time.
Enter Tom Cruise. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the U.S.-based sunglasses manufacturer Ray-Ban was fighting to stay alive as their sales figures remained dismally fiat. That is, until the company struck a deal with Paul Brickman, the director of 1983’s "Risky Business,"and Tom Cruise gave the retro-looking shades a whole lot of renewed cachet. When the movie became a hit, Ray-Ban sales rose by over 50 percent.
But Cruise and his shades were just getting started. Three years later, in Tony Scott’s "Top Gun,"when the actor alit from his fighter jet clad in Air Force leathers and Aviator Ray-Bans, the sunglasses maker saw an additional boost of 40 percent to its bottom line. (It wasn’t just dark glasses that benefited from the success of "Top Gun."Sales of leather aviator jackets surged as well, as did Air Force and Navy recruitment, the latter increasing by 500 percent.)
Ray-Ban’s success with product placement was reenacted again two decades later. In the six months after Will Smith wore what were now extremely retro shades in the 2002 film "Men in Black II,"the company’s sales tripled, amounting to what a company representative claimed was the equivalent of $25 million in free ads.
But since the days of "E.T."and "Top Gun,"product placement in the movies has grown to levels of near absurdity. When "Die Another Day,"a 2002 installment in the James Bond franchise, managed to display twenty-three brands over the course of 123 minutes, audiences were royally peeved. Most critics questioned the movie’s integrity, some even dubbing it Buy Another Day. But this was nothing compared to Sylvester Stallone’s 2001 "Driven"(which probably would have sparked similar outrage had people actually seen it), which managed to jam in 103 brands in 117 minutes — almost a brand every sixty seconds. More recently, the movie "Transformers"had unannounced cameos from AAA, Apple, Aquafina, AT&T, and Austin-Healey — and those were just the As. All in all, sixty-eight companies made utterly forgettable, face-in-the-crowd appearances in the 2007 film.
These days, we’re yanked, tugged, pelted, pushed, prodded, reminded, cajoled, whispered at, overloaded, and overwhelmed by a constant stream of in-your-face product placement. The result? Snow-blindness. Or close to it. By any chance, did you happen to see "Casino Royale,"the latest James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig? Do you remember any products that were featured in the film? FedEx? Bond’s Omega Watch? Sony’s Vaio computer? Louis Vuitton? Ford? Believe it or not, they all made uncredited walk-ons. Ford, in fact, manufactures every single car in "Casino Royale,"including a Land Rover, a Jaguar, a Lincoln, and Bond’s signature Aston Martin. And Sony showcased not just its Vaio computer but its Ericsson phones, Blu-ray players and LCD televisions.But if you’re like me, the only product you remember from "Casino Royale"is the Aston Martin, and that’s probably due more to a well-known association with James Bond cemented over the years than an actual memory from the movie (and with the cheapest Aston Martin selling for around $120,000, I doubt there were all that many takers).
When it comes to product placement, television is hardly left behind. Leslie Moonves, chairman of the CBS Corporation, predicts that soon up to 75 percent of all scripted prime-time network shows will feature products and plotlines that advertisers have paid for.It’s a staggeringly high figure that, if he’s right, would further muddy the already-fragile lines between advertising and creative content so profoundly as to alter the very meaning of entertainment. Rance Crain, the editor-in-chief of "Advertising Age,"once put it succinctly: “Advertisers will not be satisfied until they put their mark on every blade of grass.”
Excerpted from “Buy-ology.” Copyright (c) 2008 by Martin Lindstrom. Reprinted with permission from Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.