Five product placements per minute. That's the rate at which viewers of The Biggest Loser, NBC's hit reality series, were subjected to advertisers' paid placements this past season. Nabisco 100-calorie snack packs, Ziploc bags, Extra sugar-free gum -- every 12 seconds, a new scripted ad. Unbearable, right? Apparently not for the 9.3 million people who watched the show each week. According to Nielsen Media Research, the reality weight-loss program racked up 3,997 paid placements in just sixteen episodes -- edging out FOX's American Idol by about 700.
Product placement on broadcast TV is soaring -- up 39% in the first quarter of 2008 alone. Federal regulators are taking note. According to an article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (subscription required), the Federal Communications Commission recently voted to "open a formal proceeding about new rules requiring more disclosure of product placement." While the decision has not yet been made public, the commissioner of the FCC, Jonathon Adelstein, did make his opinion on the matter clear: "You shouldn't need a magnifying glass to know who's pitching you," Adelstein says. "A crawl at the end of the show shrunk down so small the human eye can't read it isn't really in the spirit of the law."
Adelstein is referring to the mandatory disclosure statements US networks currently bury in the credits. Chances are, if you watched ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition or CBS's Big Brother 9, you caught plenty of the 1,011 placements littered throughout each show, but you didn't spot the microscopic notice that flew by afterwards in the fine print. Consumer activist groups, like Commercial Alert, have been after the FCC to pass new rules about product placement for years, though advertising industry lobbyists have been successful in dissuading any significant regulatory changes. Hence why US viewers now live with branded "news," like a June 13th Entertainment Tonight segment for Wish-Bone salad dressing deftly summarized here, by Mediapost (subscription required).
In response to the rapid rise of such overt examples of branded entertainment, the global debate over product placements escalated sharply this past year. In November, the European Union passed a new set of laws prohibiting product placement in news, current events (as with the ET excerpt above) documentaries, and children's shows. Beginning in 2010, any other programming featuring paid placements must issue a disclosure statement at the beginning and end of the show, as well as after each commercial break. This past month, the UK's media minister, Andy Burnham, went even further, vowing to uphold the country's ban on paid placements indefinitely, claiming they "cross a line" and lead to a "decline in trust" among viewers.
The news that the FCC voted unanimously last week to reexamine the issue of product placement is an encouraging sign that US regulators are at least opening up the kind of dialogue that's already well underway in Europe, but should US viewers expect any profound changes or improvements? Adelstein points out that the FCC does have rules for the size and length of disclosure statements for political ads, so it's not out of the question that the commission will take action. But the bigger question facing US audiences is whether or not more disclosure really matters. Overwhelmed by advertising everywhere from beach sand to eggshells to college textbooks, our mental filters are already on high alert; few of us would confuse a tactless reality-show plug for Nabisco snacks as genuinely relevant to the plot or simply a coincidence.
I'm with Burnham: We don't need more disclosure -- we need less advertising. Five placements a minute? We're already living in branded world, inundated by 3,000-5,000 ad messages a day. Enough!
But for those television producers who must cram ads into their scripts, at least make us laugh. We won't buy the product, but we might forgive the placement.