This Plug's For You

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Mark Burnett, executive producer of CBS's Survivor, likes to talk about the reality game show's "17th character": the land. But as integral as the wilderness are the brands whose makers pay to put them into the game. Offered to the famished, isolated castaways, cheesy snack crisps and sugary soda become not just prizes but icons of civilization. "The premise is 16 Americans in a strange, deprivational world," says Burnett. "You want these modern things from home, be it Doritos, Mountain Dew, beer, gifts from Target." The goodies are to Survivor's cast as apple pie and baseball were to G.I.s: symbols of home and hearth, the stuff our guys and gals overseas are fighting for.

Product placement used to be simpler. Jerry Seinfeld gave shout-outs to Snapple and Junior Mints (gratis) to give his sitcom verisimilitude; The Price Is Right still pitches bedroom sets and floor wax. But after Survivor's success, "product integration" (a step past mere placement) is taking in-show advertising to a new level of sophistication and stealth. Products are becoming part of the show, be it the Taco Bell that's a site of a "murder" investigation on a new reality show or an suv used in a TV-staged transcontinental race. And producers and advertisers are getting cozier than at any time since the days of Texaco Star Theater.

This summer, on Fox's Murder in Small Town X, 10 contestants will solve a murder mystery in a Maine town peopled by actors and well stocked with Nokia phones, Jeeps and Taco Bell's grilled stuffed burritos. On abc's The Runner, scheduled for January, a contestant will travel the country, trying to elude capture by viewers who will compete for a growing pot of cash, while driving the cars, using the atm cards and scarfing the fast food of yet to be signed patrons. "The runner lives in the real world, just like you and I," says abc sales president Mike Shaw. "If the runner eats lunch at McDonald's in Cincinnati or shops at Sears, that's all very natural." A midseason WB wilderness-race show is being co-produced by Ford, which supplies the suvs the players will drive; the title, No Boundaries, is a Ford ad slogan. Fox may even do placements in Temptation Island 2. (Trojan, call your agency!)

Such placements-sold by the networks as packages with traditional commercials -offer a new cash stream amid bottom-line pressures. No Boundaries executive producer Kevin Beggs says that before he and his partners secured funding from Ford, "there was interest, but there was interest in a lot of shows." But after the sponsorship, "we got an order from the WB for 13 episodes." (Says network spokesman Paul McGuire: "The WB would not have gone forward with the show unless we liked and embraced the concept of the program.") There are longer-term pressures at work too. Digital video recorders like TiVo are making it easier for viewers to zap past ads. Commercial breaks-16 minutes or so of every TV hour -have stretched the limits of viewer tolerance. And this "clutter," plus the metastasizing of ads to benches, bananas and buses, makes it hard for a commercial message to stand out. "Commercial TV makes all its money from advertising," says Burnett. "You'd better make [advertisers] feel they're selling product, or they're going to find new places to advertise." Integrating pitches into entertainment, he says, is "the future."

Product placement may change TV's past too. Video-technology company Princeton Video Image has for years used digital imaging to insert virtual first-down lines (with corporate logos) in football games and completely photorealistic but nonexistent "signs" behind home plate at baseball games. Now it wants to move into reruns, with technology that can seamlessly insert 3-D objects into video footage-a Pepsi on a desktop, a Lexus at a curbside, a box of Tide on a countertop-where there was nothing before. PVI is negotiating to do placements in reruns of Law & Order and hopes to strike deals with other syndicators and even first-run shows. "You could sell a box of cereal in the kitchen one [airing]," says PVI vice president Paul Slagle, "and dish soap in the next." PVI's Holy Grail: customizing insertions using interactive-TV technology-which is still distant and speculative-that would store viewer information (demographic details, even interactive purchases) as Web browsers do. Your TV would figure, Slagle says, "whether you're riper for a Cadillac or a Saturn."

In one sense, placements are just like commercials: they spotlight a product in an idealized, favorable setting. But they raise other questions. Virtual placements could alter past producers' creative work willy-nilly. As for physical placements, producers do disclose their sponsors-but there's disclosure and then there's disclosure. Viewers know commercials are scripted. But reality shows purport to show actual events-how a player felt, how a product performed. What if unscripted events don't follow the advertiser's script? Contestants on Fox's Murder drive Jeeps. If one of them stalls, does Fox cut the scene? "No," says executive producer George Verschoor. "In fact, Jeep encouraged us to push these vehicles to their limits."

But asked the same question, Fox president of sales Jon Nesvig says with a laugh: "I would hope the producers would probably use some judgment there." At the least, producers would risk losing sponsors. Says Debbie Myers, media services vice president of Taco Bell: "We have tremendous equity in our brand. We would never do this unless we were fully protected." And looming over the rest of TV is the idea that after the success of sponsored reality series, networks might want to sign up sponsors for dramas and sitcoms, and advertisers could thus exert control over scripts and story lines.

To ad-industry critics like Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, the new product placements add up to a return to the past-the 1950s quiz-show scandals were spurred partly by sponsors' meddling-and an "Orwellian" future in which "the TV begins collecting information on you." But Keith Quinn, marketing vice president for LivePlanet, The Runner's production company, contends that consumers will welcome "cool, fun" and useful in-show ads. "We could ask on the website, 'What brand of car was the runner in last night?'" he says. "If you answer correctly, you're entered in a drawing to win the car. People would be psyched."

It's an audacious and not necessarily inaccurate vision of the viewer's relation to advertising today, a continuous circle of capitalism and entertainment that blurs the line between your life and the game, the ad and the show, consuming and playing. To Chester, this vision is a sign that "the already tattered distinctions between marketing and content are being obliterated." To consumers, it may make no difference: in a May Time/cnn poll, only 13% said they would think less of shows that took placements.

The dangers for product placers may instead be the same as in traditional ads: the audience. "Less is more," warns John Lazarus, senior vice president of ad-buying agency TN Media. "If you do too much, it's going to look silly and overcommercialized." Above all, producers and advertisers agree, placements need to be "organic"; an out-of-place product or overly enthusiastic shill (remember Colby gushing over the Pontiac Aztek's capacious luxury) breaks the spell. But organic is in the eye of the beholder. Slagle says PVI recently made a demo with a rerun of Bewitched, adding a box of SnackWell's cookies in the 1960s kitchen of Samantha and Darrin's nosy neighbors, the Kravitzes. "It absolutely fit in," he marvels. "They would be the sort of people who would eat SnackWell's." Samantha will always be in her time warp. But there's nothing to keep Madison Avenue from twitching its nose and doing a little hocus-pocus.