Why product placement is now bigger than ever
TV and advertising have always existed side by side. But now that viewers can easily skip breaks, brands are finding new ways to get their messages across, Joe O'Shea reports
It happens more often than you might think. You sit down to binge-watch your favourite TV drama and you suddenly find yourself thinking: "You know, I really should get that new smartphone."
Or it could be a specific brand of car, yoghurt, soft-drink or breakfast cereal.
You may think you're focused on the drama and the dialogue. But what's really happening is you are being sold. Product placement is now everywhere on the small-screen. And advertisers are already looking beyond to the next generation of in-show selling techniques, with "digital insertion" set to change your favourite TV shows, movies or music videos in ways you may not even notice.
Product placement (or PP) is a big part of prestige dramas such as House Of Cards and Breaking Bad as well as comedies and soaps such as Coronation Street and RTE's Fair City (RTE signed a three-year, €900,000 deal to make the soap's corner shop a SPAR in November 2011).
If you have watched recent seasons of ITV's talent show The X Factor, you may have found yourself fighting the urge to buy a Samsung phone or TV, about every 45 seconds.
And it works. A new survey by Channel 4 looked at viewer reaction to the placement of Yeo Valley yoghurts on celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's 15 Minute Meals. It found that 52pc of viewers said they would buy the brand the next time they bought yoghurt.
Similar results have been found in studies carried out in the US, where brands such as Apple, Blackberry, Chrysler and Sony will pay millions to have their brand or products featured in shows such as The Walking Dead and Modern Family.
One episode of Modern Family even had a central storyline, dad Phil's increasingly desperate search for the latest iPad. The show was timed to go out just days before Apple launched the latest version of the tablet computer.
Since the relaxation of PP rules in the UK, shows such as Coronation Street (to take just one high-profile example) have featured everything from branded ATMs to breakfast cereals.
ITV's commercial content director, Gary Knight, recently said PP on UK TV could soon be worth up to €190m a year.
But, like others in the industry, Mr Knight sounded a note of caution.
"If viewers think something is false or weird, that's when they reject it," he said.
"So editorial teams, which have got the ultimate power, are not going to allow that to happen. The production teams in many ways become guardians for the viewers."
The broadcasters are only too aware that if viewers start to feel they are constantly being "sold", they will switch off. The X Factor's relentless showcasing and plugging of Samsung products did cause a major social-media storm last year with many fans complaining about the never-ending plugs for the branded smartphones, tablets and TVs.
However, broadcasters and the advertisers who pay them to make shows are desperately chasing viewers who are using the digital revolution to avoid traditional ad-breaks in rapidly increasing numbers.
Subscription viewing, DVDs, streaming (legal and illegal) or set-top boxes which allow us to fast-forward through the ad-breaks are making traditional mid-show advertising obsolete.
Where once we might have sat through three-and-a-half minutes of an ad-break, we now fast forward, or find ways (such as subscription services like Netflix) to avoid ads altogether.
According to recent research, 90pc of households now use digital recording boxes to skip through ad breaks.
The industry has had to react to these fast-moving trends. And the latest buzz-phrase is "digital insertion" - which is rapidly becoming the new product placement.
What it means is placing virtual, CGI products and logos into shows which have already been filmed, a technique once confined to Hollywood movies.
This could be anything from inserting a billboard into a wide-shot of an old police drama to placing brands on previously blank tea mugs - as was done with PG Tips on Channel 4's Deal Or No Deal recently.
Digital insertion allows broadcasters to place brands in all kinds of shows retroactively - including old episodes of Dallas, which, in Middle East markets at least, recently had ads for a major mobile phone provider shoehorned into the drama.
The process can also be used to tailor advertising for local markets. With some big-budget TV programmes now selling in up to 200 territories worldwide, digital insertion can be used to sell beer in Ireland or bottled water in Saudi Arabia.
One major US drama used DI to change a car driven by a main character from a Bentley in the US, to a Mitsubishi in Brazil, to coincide with a major product launch by the Japanese car maker.
You may or may not notice the subtle placement of brands in your favourite shows. But the technique is here to stay.