Product Placement: Not Just a Day at The Office

Sep 18, 2006  •  Post A Comment

This is a busy time of year for Mitch Litvak, president of The L.A. Office, as he prepares for his organization’s annual RoadShow Hollywood, running Monday through Thursday. At this ninth installment of the RoadShow, entertainment marketing professionals from around the country will converge on Los Angeles to learn about the latest programs and projects in the world of film, television, music and gaming. Mr. Litvak took time out recently to talk about the convention and the state of the art of product placement and branding with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

TelevisionWeek: Tell me about the upcoming RoadShow Hollywood convention.

Mitch Litvak: RoadShow Hollywood is an entertainment marketing event for brand marketers, agencies-both promotion and advertising agencies-to attend and find out what’s coming up in film, television, music and gaming, usually for commercial tie-in purposes. Some product placement opportunities are also available when they’re talking about different properties. The event used to be a three-city tour of just the film groups going from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. In 2001 we brought it to Los Angeles alone and added music and television. In 2005 we added gaming to that, so now it’s a very full four days.

TVWeek: Is the show always in Los Angeles now?

Mr. Litvak: Yes, since 2001. Most of the entertainment companies are here. When we used to travel, a day in New York, a day in Chicago and then L.A., we noticed that we always had more people at the L.A. event because they could take the time to meet with the studios afterwards.

TVWeek: What will a typical attendee get out of the RoadShow?

Mr. Litvak: They’re going to walk away with a few things. They’re going to get a complete picture of the entertainment landscape for film, television, music and gaming. They’re going to hear from all the major film distributors, gaming companies, music companies and TV networks, what’s available for them to tie into promotionally for the next couple of years. They’re going to have a handbook that literally lists all those properties, which is almost as important as the relationships they’re going to have with every single one of those companies. That kind of relationship is something that’s a key to the business, so it’s really important on that end. We also set up many opportunities for that kind of networking. But the most important thing is the opportunities for people to develop relationships. The fact is we bring together over a thousand people, all interested in finding new ways to work together in TV, movies, music and gaming.

TVWeek: How sophisticated have product placement and promotional tie-ins become?

Mr. Litvak: It’s incredibly sophisticated, and over the past few years it’s gotten more and more demanding on the entertainment companies to understand their partners better. What we try to do is work with the studios to make sure that they incorporate different things into their sessions to make it a little more relevant to the attendees. In the old days, they used to just go up and show a reel of their upcoming films and television shows and that was it. Nowadays they really need to be more strategic in terms of how they position their properties. When they’re talking about something, they really need to get into who their target audience is and how they plan to market to them. In other words, giving case studies or samples of how it’s done. If it’s a kids program, how they can take that kids program and how the property can live on cereal boxes, in fast-food restaurants and beverage containers. They do a lot of mock-ups and samples.

TVWeek: How does the industry deal with the entertainment entities that don’t want promotions or product placement connected to their programming?

Mr. Litvak: In order to be purely entertainment, you need to be relevant with your consumers. For someone to be drinking a Coke or eating a bag of chips, that’s real. In the old days, you’d just see a can with the label “cola” on it. And that was more distracting than a real can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. There are natural product placement opportunities in almost every property that’s out there, and then there are those that are a little stretched.

TVWeek: What are some of the smart examples of product placement in television from the past year?

Mr. Litvak: I think Sears’ relationship with ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” is one of those that just makes sense all around. They’re talking about a home makeover and Sears is known for having the products, the appliances and the capabilities to get involved in that kind of stuff. Another one is Home Depot and TLC’s “Trading Spaces.” Some of the stuff with “The Apprentice” [NBC] has been very, very good because you’re talking about business people trying to learn how to get involved in a business by doing a real, live project. That’s so much more relevant to the audience. Can you imagine if in every episode they were trying to create a fake business plan?

TVWeek: Do you think viewers object to products being promoted within an entertainment vehicle?

Mr. Litvak: No. I think sometimes it can go overboard, but in all reality, if they didn’t have names and companies that people were aware of, then the show would take a totally different turn. How could they invent a new company every week if they want to depict reality? I think it’s a little more interesting when all of a sudden they’re going into a Dairy Queen and you, as a viewer, recognize the product they are trying to market. They show you what goes on behind the scenes to make that happen. I think the challenges created on “The Apprentice,” in particular, are always done in a way that makes it easy to communicate to the viewer what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, and while it’s a promotion for the brand, it’s also a very significant piece of the television program.

TVWeek: There seem to be a lot of tie-ins and product placement in the reality TV genre. Will that be addressed at the RoadShow?

Mr. Litvak: We’re covering that on the TV teen and adult track. We have some participants that do reality programming, like Food Network, and some groups like Fremantle, which does “American Idol.” We’re hoping that there’ll be discussions about that in those sessions.

TVWeek: It seems as though reality TV has opened doors for all kinds of product placements and promotions.

Mr. Litvak: Absolutely. I think it’s making marketers think smarter. On the production side, they’re not just looking at the product placement as a checkbook; they’re looking at ways that they can make sense in that product placement. There’s been a time when there were a lot of checkbooks opening up and some people have seen the positives in that, but there are also a lot of opportunities where marketers have seen the negative as well. The smarter producers now have seen both the good and the bad, and are really striving to make sure that whatever they do, they’re doing it right. There are always going to be people who are only in it for the buck, but at the same time I truly believe people have seen enough of this stuff that they’ve got a taste for the way it can be done right and how it can be done wrong.

TVWeek: How will the RoadShow address the technological changes in the industry, like TiVo, iPods and downloading?

Mr. Litvak: We take into consideration, each one of the days, all the different technologies. In our TV day, we talk about the different properties available for both kids and families; we break that up into kids and adults tracks. The kids and family programming is Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, etc. The teen and adult track we have networks that have properties that are more appropriate to that audience. In one area we have kids marketers, cereals and packaged goods. Then on the flip side, we have companies that specifically market to the adult audience.

TVWeek: Will product placement be effective in new media platforms, as screens get smaller or people are downloading shows or zapping through commercials?

Mr. Litvak: As techno
logies change, marketers need to think of ways to change, too. Rather than just a traditional product placement you might see when watching a television show, the product placement is more common now in the sponsorship of some of those things. So for a major brand marketer, the thing is not to be as concerned about the product placement within a show, but to be involved in the sponsorship of the show on iPod, or download it for free by going on the Coca-Cola site or something like that.

TVWeek: How are marketers dealing with TiVo in particular?

Mr. Litvak: The whole idea of commercial skipping is becoming an issue for a lot of marketers. I think people are just going to have to find more creative solutions. They need to figure out ways to keep their messages from being missed. It’s kind of interesting to see some of the things people are doing, like in-store promotions. Retail is a lot more important to all marketers.

TVWeek: Will TiVo force more product placement into the body of the shows?

Mr. Litvak: I think so. There’s pressure to do it a number of ways; one is straight product placement. Another is when there’s a natural placement, like a computer or a car. I’m hopeful that product placement doesn’t become a distraction. It should just be part of the reality of television. Like when Starbucks was heavily placed on “The West Wing,” it was right. I know when I walk into my office, I see people with Starbucks cups or Coffee Bean cups, and that’s our reality. People don’t use nondescript cups. And there can be a big difference in perception between someone walking in with a Dunkin’ Donuts cup and someone walking in with a Starbucks cup.