Product Placement Frequency Does Not Equal Engagement

In the past few months, research about the frequency of product placements appearing in TV shows has made news--in particular, the number of product placements in reality shows, such as "The Contender," which distinguished itself with an average of 500 individual occurrences for the Everlast brand.

Yet new research forthcoming in the Journal of Advertising Research suggests that there is more to the picture than just counting occurrences. The traditional "frequency-based" approach works on the assumption that each "occurrence" is equal. In fact, there are a number of other dynamic and important elements at work.

In TV shows or sporting events where there may be continuous, static, or repetitive occurrences of a brand, logo, or product, a viewer's attention, awareness, and engagement to that stimulus gradually decays over time. This is a well-known fact confirmed in perception (aural and visual) and attention studies. Advertisers have borrowed from this and apply a "decay rate," called a half-life, to account for the diminishing influence advertising has over time.

In addition, the "frequency" approach (counting occurrences as if they are all equal) misses the entire dimension of "engagement": how people actually view, make sense of, and respond to the brand in content and attend to a show, storyline, or episode. If we take the Everlast brand in "The Contender" as an example, as the involvement and interest in the show increases, the decay rate (recall/recognition of the brand) kicks in. After a certain amount of time, attention to the Everlast brand fades away as people become more involved in the content, action, or story being presented in the show. A "crossover dynamic" occurs that mitigates the frequency effect. Another example is the red Coca-Cola cup on "American Idol"--while awareness may be high at the beginning of the show, by the end, it becomes as black as Simon's shirt.

It is the context of the placement--its quality, relevance, ability to engage, involve, and hold attention--that matters. Judgments based on frequency counts alone can be distorted. The Advertising Research Foundation's MI4 project on engagement is on the right track: let's get beyond counting to the elements that recognize the power of the brand idea. Only then can we determine what works, what doesn't, and why, in the important emerging new media and product placement integration industry.

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