Never a break from the commercials
Product placement, once a subtle form of television advertising, is now a naked marketing weapon that also rules our computer and smartphone screens.
When Keds Kids VP-Marketing Sabina Meir was looking for a way to reach the 6-10 age group, she found herself facing a problem. "This audience watches the Children's Channel, which has no advertising," she explained. So she found a creative, effective solution: Instead of buying time in the commercial breaks on one of the commercial television stations, her company signed an agreement to offer prizes on the Children's Channel, which was running a fashion program for children called "Achi BeStyle" ("the most stylish" ), a contest for children who want to be fashion stylists.
The partnership, which cost the company a few tens of thousands of shekels, had several components: Keds Kids' house stylist would be one of the three judges, and the hosts would direct viewers to the channel's web page. And that's where the real bonus lay - not on the television screen, but on another screen entirely, says Meir. "Television is restricted by regulation," she says. "You know in advance what you're getting into. You can sponsor a prize or a cool gift, but you know you won't have more significant involvement in content. But online your brand can receive greater expression via a contest or tips, and there's no regulation there."
Keds Kids received more significant exposure on the program's website, where it offered contests with prizes and had its logo prominently featured. The prizes were in the form of credit at the company's stores, whose current slogan is "What's your style?" A perfect match for the show's message. Thus was completed a perfect circle of content and commercial cooperation that the young viewers most likely were not aware of.
Product placement on television is an open secret. On nearly every morning news and talk show you can find product recommendations and interviews with corporate experts. Embedded advertising of this kind rakes in an estimated NIS 100 million a year, if not more, according to Yifat Barkan Advertising; confidentiality agreements make precise figures hard to come by.
The boundaries between programs and commercials are becoming ever more blurry, according to a study by Anat Balint that was published last month by the Israel Democracy Institute.
"Television content and advertising, what's allowed and what's not, has gotten blurred in the past few years," says Balint, a former media correspondent for Haaretz. "Sponsorship agreements, which are permitted, have turned into a door through which advertisers can become involved in content and have influence, not only by having their products appear on the screen but also indirectly. Viewers believe the commercial break is dedicated to ads and the rest of the time is theirs. But that's not really how it works," Balint says.
As Keds Kids' strategy shows, the old discussion about commercial content on television has lost much of its relevance. TV has become merely a portal to another medium, the Internet, an unregulated arena where companies can do whatever they want. Keds Kids-style campaigns have become the norm, and once you add in online marketing presence, advertisers' involvement in the content we consume is even greater than we may think.
Television may still pull in ratings, but it's also the only screen subject to regulation. Prime-time product placement is expensive: a contract for exposure on the Israeli version of the "Big Brother" reality show, for example, costs NIS 1.5 million, and it's nearly impossible to motivate viewers to action as a result. Assuming they are even paying attention to what they're watching rather than using their cellphones to monitor Facebook and text their friends.
"Content is content is content, and television is merely one screen for consuming it, alongside smartphones and iPads," says Erez Bergbaum, CEO and founder of C- the branded content agency.
"Due to regulation, most successful campaigns involve multiple screens. On TV, ads draw ties between the commercial brand and the content brand, and they direct the target audience to other media that spur much greater involvement. Commercial content on television is merely the display window for an entire store that exists in other media," Bergbaum says.
Both the media outlets and the brands want their presence felt across multiple screens, agrees Balint. "Thus the perfect marriage is created - Israel's Channel 2 [commercial television] is still a very strong engine, but programs are used as the gateway to bring viewers to other platforms, such as the [channel's] Mako website. Viewers, without being aware of it, shift from a regulated environment to one without rules."
While watching television 57% of smartphone and tablet computer owners check email, 44% surf the web and 44% go to social network sites, according to an international survey issued by ACNielsen in April. During commercial breaks these figures climb by a few percentage points. How do you get these distracted, technology-saturated viewers to absorb the advertisers' messages?
"An advertising campaign that doesn't involve several platforms isn't maximizing the return on investment," says Yuval Lev, who launched McCann Erickson Israel's branded entertainment subsidiary and is now an advertising consultant. "Let's say I create a home for "Big Brother" on Mako. I can package the whole thing under the logo of the brand sponsoring the program, using an infinite media platform devoid of regulation. For example, part of the site could include an area dedicated to [telecommunication company] Bezeq, in the company's colors, allowing users to call the contestants using Bezeq's NGN technology; and of course the show's hosts will direct viewers to the website. The commercial exposure would be mainly on television, where you need to create ratings and draw interest. Most of the content would be online," Lev says.
For marketers, the Internet is the holy grail: It allows consumers to get involved with their brands, says Lev. "Viewers are passive while watching television. When I put the content online I can talk with them, know what they need, not just give them recipes from 'Master Chef' but also ask what dishes they like," he says.
Such holistic partnership is particularly efficient when the TV show draws a targeted audience, such as male sports fans, or teenagers, who generally don't watch commercials. In these cases, the ratings are low but viewer involvement is high and the audience is highly defined.
And if the viewers are already on the channel operators' websites, why not keep them there with a little more commercial content? Bergbaum says that Procter & Gamble, one of his customers, has several content channels on Channel 10's Nana10 website, including "Olam Hayofi" (world of beauty ) for the Pantene haircare brand and "Olam Habayit" (world of home ) for the company's cleaning-product brands. "I don't get involved in the content on these channels, I just build them their general stories," Bergbaum says. According to the Nielsen poll, 52% of Internet users reported that the form of advertising they most trusted was brand websites, followed by Internet ads and TV ads.
But most advertisers still seek the halo effect and the ratings offered by prime-time television. Commercial content has become increasingly important to television. "These days I can't get onto any prime-time shows without paying," one marketing manager of a major brand says, adding, "It's become another advertising instrument for production. None of the television franchise holders have an excess of cash and they're trying to squeeze every last bit of juice out of their oranges. There were programs that made me say, as a viewer, come on now, you've gone too far. Viewers who don't understand how these things work would absorb the commercial message without realizing it," the marketing manager says.
Welcome to the jungle
One example of the blurring of the borders of advertising content comes from this season's "Mishpaha Horeget," broadcast by Channel 2 franchise operator Reshet. The third episode is about Emily and Elie Ben Or, a couple from Pardes Hanna who met while traveling abroad the world before settling and opening a pizza parlor in the town. They approached the show for help with their financial problems, and throughout the episode host Alon Gal gives them tips: "You have to promote yourselves online and increase your website exposure," he suggests, adding, "Even 144 [Bezeq directory assistance] could boost you." Gal gives the Ben Ors the goal of selling 15 pizzas a night, and Emily calls Bezeq's corporate account center. "Hi, I'd like to add my business to the business search," she tells the representative, who responds, "You're talking about one of Bezeq's services, promoting businesses based on categories. The camera pans over to a computer screen, which displays the 144 website. "Really? Cool," says Emily.
The Second Authority for Television and Radio is examining whether the Bezeq product placement violated commercial-content laws. "Bezeq's prohibited product placement violates the authority's guidelines for the show," the watchdog agency said in a response. "This included the inclusion of the company and its products in the show's plot." Bezeq did not respond to requests for comment.
A source who was involved in product placement for the previous season of "Mishpaha Horeget" says Bezeq was not the only company to buy its way onto the show. Interested corporate clients are given advance copies of the script, so they can decide how to incorporate themselves. Afterward they view the episodes to approve them for airing.
"The way these matters are handled on a day-to-day basis is nothing short of astonishing. The brands have astounding power," says the source. Brands that appear on the program, and may have received oversight over content, include Discount Bank, Tambour paints and Bank Hapoalim, whose presence stood out in the first season due to the participation of its experts and advisers.
Reshet stated in response that it follows the regulator's rules.
The regulator's ruling a month ago that Orna Datz's morning show on Channel 10 had violated advertising restrictions is further proof that commercial content is controlling our screens. And in late July, the second authority fined Keshet, Reshet and Channel 10, the three commercial television broadcasters, a combined NIS 1.5 million for charging to promote products and services during TV shows as opposed to during commercial breaks, after a months-long investigation. The agency also ordered them to stop broadcasting four of their lifestyle programs and banned any reruns in the future.
Channel 10 was fined NIS 440,000 for "Bri'ut 10" and "Mishpaha 10." Keshet was fined NIS 480,000 for "Yofi Shel Yom" and Reshet was fined NIS 540,000 for "Lihyot Tov."
When companies pay to get air time for their products or services, "the content is influenced by commercial and promotional interests," which violates "basic broadcast and journalistic ethics," the authority said at the time.
The market has slowed somewhat over the past year, mostly due to Channel 10's financial troubles, according to Yifat. The only mega-deals this year were with Bezeq, which beyond its role on "Mishpaha Horeget" signed broad sponsorship deals with the Israeli versions of both "Big Brother" and "The Voice."
"This is due to a crisis among advertisers: Everything is so full of messages, particularly in programming targeting young audiences," says Noa Lor, VP-Marketing of Eurocom, the local Nokia importer. "It's nearly impossible to stand out during the commercial break." For two seasons Nokia had a commercial-content deal with "Kochav Nolad," the Israeli version of "American Idol" - an example of an arrangement giving the brand a foothold in the program itself. The program included prizes and sponsorship mentions, which is acceptable, but every week's winning song was also released as a video for mobile download.
"That was a 360-degree deal - television, Internet, cell, interactive," says Lor. "The goal was to bring buyers to the point of sale. In terms of the production, the videos were a bonus for contestants. From our perspective, we proved the video recording quality of our cell phones."
Integration among different media is key to commercial content. In last season's "Big Brother," Bezeq had a major agreement including sponsorship and commercial spots as well as tablet computers with the company's NGN logo.
"Relatives brought contestants packages wrapped in Bezeq's colors, blue and white, and with the slogan 'It's warmest at home,' which is similar to Bezeq's slogan," one source said, adding, "The role of comprehensive media in these cases is to give a clear interpretation to the hints within the show itself and to fill in the gaps: The banner, the sponsorship and the ad are supposed to make the viewer understand what was hinted at throughout the program," the source said.
Bezeq declined comment.
Balint also cites several recent examples of less intrusive advertising content, such as the friendly investment adviser on the first season of the Keshet drama series "Mesudarim." She is described in Balint's study as coming across "as reliable, professional, responsible and mature, compared to the group of impulsive young adults, who saves them time and again."
"In one episode she recommended that one of the main characters, played by Assi Cohen, invest in 'green funds,' and read out their capital market returns over the phone. Just then the Altshuler-Shaham Investment House was conducting a campaign for its green fund. The investment house was one of the program's sponsors."
Series creator Assaf Harel told Balint that the program was made in cooperation with Keshet's corporate cooperation department and said he saw nothing wrong with it. "I tell the department, 'There should be a conversation about stocks.' That scene will take place in any case, so if I say something and that brings the series more money, then great," Harel said.
Keshet said in a response that it complies with the regulators.