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A New Stealth Weapon

January 21, 2003

The ever-escalating race to fool the thumbs of TV viewers with remotes and other ad-zapping gadgets is moving to a new level. TiVo owners, beware. A couple of program producers have re-devised an old-fashioned approach to ads. In a series of live variety shows on the WB Network next summer they'll replace commercial breaks and their numerous 30-second spots with product placements, inserting advertisers' products into the program.

This will presumably prompt millions to urgently down a Pepsi while chatting on their Nokia phone. And it may avoid the ad detections that turn off some TV recorders or prompt real-time viewers to hop to another channel for 210 seconds.

In TV's earliest days, advertisers bought broadcast time and filled it with their own programming of characters who, wonder of wonders, used the sponsors' wonderful products. So the term "soap opera" grew from the abnormal frequency of characters doing their laundry on-air with Tide or Duz. More recently, you may have noticed James Bond's taste in cars, watches and liquor changing by the film. No accident. At the recent Product Placement Awards in Australia the top prize went to the movie "Minority Report," which slipped into the story a Lexus, Nokia, Oakley sunglasses, Reebok shoes, American Express, Burger King and Gap clothing under the direction of Steven Spielberg, who once had E.T. eat Reese's Pieces.

Advertisers fund television. Most magazines and newspapers too, for that matter. They have a right to get their message out, and viewers or readers have a right to memorize or dodge them as desired. You may not have read every line of this morning's department store ads. Fine. What concerns some is the inability to dodge product placements and the creeping surreptitiousness of this advertising arms race. Not yet subliminal, but watch out.

A certain sports network -- we'll call it Fox -- has an evening program with a crude name that has decided to interview as a legitimate studio guest the bear who does beer commercials on that same program. Do you suppose the word "Labatt's" will come up in conversation? And what might that Canadian beer bear offer as insight on Cleveland's leaky "prevent" defense?

Experience suggests that over time consumers may well grow tired of ubiquitous, prominent product placements. (Order Times home delivery.) If not done smoothly (KTLA), the products (Watch the WB now!) will intrude on content. (Go Cubs!) Then, TV networks themselves may zap product placements from their ad arsenal.

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