NBC Wants You to Do Good. Why? A Look Inside 'Behavior Placement'
By Jason Newman Posted Apr 15th 2010 10:00AM
Wall Street Journal article revealed last week, the plot line, and many others on your favorite NBC shows, was an advertising plant known as "behavior placement." As the article states: "The tactic ... is designed to sway viewers to adopt actions they see modeled in their favorite shows. And it helps sell ads to marketers who want to associate their brands with a feel-good, socially-aware show. Unlike with product placement, which can seem jarring to savvy viewers, the goal is that viewers won't really notice that Tina Fey is tossing a plastic bottle into the recycle bin, or that a minor character on 'Law and Order: SVU' has switched to energy-saving light bulbs."
The combination of NBC's ratings woes over the past decade, the steady rise of DVRs, Tivos and other commercial-bypassing machines and the general decline of the U.S. economy in recent years has led NBC to try new initiatives in an effort to lure advertisers. In today's age, buying ads may not be the sole route to get your product's message across.
"All the networks are doing things now that they never would have done 10 or 15 years ago when they were kings of the castle," says Brian Steinberg, Television Editor at Advertising Age. "They're allowing more intrusive placements and deeper connections with advertisers. We're at a point now where it's getting more egregious because the networks are economically flailing about for some new model."
With NBC already planning more green story lines and an upcoming week in June during which certain shows will emphasize healthy eating and exercise, the bigger question is not so much, "Is this good for advertisers?" but rather, "Will this actually do anything?"
"It's a totally lame approach in terms of a network or medium assuming that every viewer is a moron and that we're not going to get it," says Dr. Mary-Lou Galician, author of 'Handbook of Product Placement in the Mass Media' and head of Media Analysis & Criticism at Arizona State University. Galician points to a huge difference between a nerdy character like '30 Rock's' Liz Lemon or 'The Office's' Dwight Schrute recycling and the spike in library cards obtained after Henry Winkler's Fonz snagged one on 'Happy Days.'
"The placement has to be associated with a character or activity that is perceived by the viewer as positive," says Galician. "Fonzie was a hero to millions of young people. Liz Lemon is not somebody that we want to emulate. We laugh at her. The behaviors that these people do are hardly things that would incite viewers who don't already do those behaviors to do something. It's pandering and doesn't make much sense. It just rings so false."
NBC was unavailable for comment.
NBC was unavailable for comment.
The idea of affecting behavioral change through television is older than you think. In 1989, a decade after the Fonz, Dr. Jay Winsten, Director of the Harvard Alcohol Project, met with writers and producers of such shows as 'L.A. Law,' 'Cheers' and 'The Cosby Show,' asking them to incorporate a new program in the United States: the designated driver. As legendary television writer/producer Norman Lear points out: "Over 160 prime time episodes include[d] subplots, scenes or dialogue telling viewers it's okay to party as long as someone stays sober for the drive home. One year later, a Gallup poll finds 67% of adults surveyed recognize the term 'designated driver.' In 1991, Winsten's new idea [became] a listing in Webster's College Dictionary."
More recently, groups like the Alliance for Family Entertainment, an organization of national advertisers that attempts to increase family-friendly programming, have been instrumental in initiating and promoting programs such as 'Gilmore Girls,' 'Everybody Hates Chris' and 'Friday Night Lights'.
Though most of us are loath to admit it, product placement can have very real and tangible effects on our buying decisions. Would "behavior placement" work in a similar way? Doubtful. As Galician points out, "It's incredibly easy to get people to throw a cigarette in their mouth, but it's incredibly hard to get it out of their mouth once they're addicted."
Translation: For most people, getting that cupcake at Magnolia Bakery because Carrie Bradshaw goes there won't be offset by a Liz Lemon treadmill workout. And while no one can fault NBC for promoting a healthier lifestyle -- few can argue that living healthier has negative consequences -- the focus remains, as always, squarely on the bottom line. That's why ads for Pepsi and Doritos, while contradictory and hypocritical in context to the messages promoted, won't be off the air anytime soon.
The practice has flourished partly because younger viewers (read: the most coveted demographic) have become savvier about when they're being marketed to simply through the need for advertisers to hammer their message across amid an increasing number of distractions and diversions. "It's gotten to the point now where people automatically assume that an advertiser shoved their product in there whenever they see something," says Steinberg, who points to the '30 Rock' episode in which Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek reconcile over McDonald's Mcflurrys (for those keeping tabs at home -- writers chose the dessert with no involvement from McDonalds).
Steinberg and Galician both stress the need for the viewer to be more aware of what they're watching and what messages are being transmitted to them.
"This is an era in which consumers really need to say, 'Why are people saying or doing that?' 'Why is my content this way?' Is it because it was written this way or because there's a deeper relationship with an advertiser that is subtly shifting the creation of what I enjoy?," says Steinberg.
Galician goes further. "There will always be pushers of various things that are not in our best interests even though they may be entertaining at the moment. It's not the sender of the message. The onus is on us as consumers because the networks will give us what we want. Their devotion is not to us but their investors and sponsors. The programming is just the filler between the commercials."
ABC, CBS, and FOX have yet to adopt the "behavior placement" model. Yet.
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