Brandtique: Fear Factor

Nielsen's ad measurement arm came out with its list of the shows with the most product placement, or "brand occurrences," in the first half of 2006 last week. It was hardly a shocker that "American Idol," "The Apprentice" and "Extreme Makeover" topped the charts. What was slightly jarring was "Fear Factor" failed to make the top 10.

The primary reason may be NBC's decision to phase the show out, and after deemphasizing the one-time hit, end its run this summer. Otherwise, the show functions as a Petri dish for branded entertainment, product placement, "brand occurrences" or whatever the term du jour is. Somewhat surprisingly, marketers such as Capital One--and last week, Progressive Direct--eagerly allow their brands to be woven into a show where the highlight often is whether some brave souls will eat arachnids, millipedes and the like.

It might have made sense when the show was an emerging hit with high audience levels, but this summer it ranked 44th among network shows in the 18-to-49 demo with a 2.2. "Primetime: Medical Mysteries," which would seem to appeal to the over-60 crowd, drew more 18-to-49s.

But nowadays, why would a marketer want their moniker placed on the screen with a tray full of roaches behind it, as was the case with auto insurer Progressive Direct in the Aug. 22 episode (one of the top-ranked product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX). People don't like insurance companies and they don't like roaches, so any link in a viewer's mind--either consciously or subliminally--just can't be a plus for Progressive.

The challenge on the recent episode of "Fear Factor" was the garden variety: The first team to stick their heads in a bed full of roaches, pull 10 out with their mouths and then eat them wins $25,000. Another questionable aspect of the Progressive placement comes here: It's nice to provide a duo of fine folks with a check for a quarter-mil (maybe 17 grand after taxes, $8,500 each), but does a marketer want to be the one to do it for ingesting a species most people call Orkin for?

As a marketing tactic, the link with cockroaches is cockamamie. It smacks of scraping the bottom of the barrel and desperately searching for a new marketing platform just for the sake of doing it, perhaps to impress the C-suiters.

If you want to build goodwill as a marketing technique, give away a half-mil, or MUCH MORE, for stuffing one's face with rancid creatures. For an insurance company, that's like--what--two months' premiums?

Nevertheless, while the wisdom of the "Fear Factor" link is dubious for Progressive, from a sheer exposure point of view, it arguably--very--did its job. The envelope with the check inside and Progressive Direct written all over it was the subject of multiple screen shots. And host Joe Rogan mentioned that winners could win--might win--will win--did win--"25,000 dollars from Progressive Direct" so many times that it had a good chance of getting ingrained in the viewers' heads--advertising effectiveness, for better or worse.

"Fear Factor" will soon live out its life span in syndication and on cable. Cockroaches are said to be able to survive a nuclear holocaust. Marketers with their logos on the show placed alongside putrid creatures might hope for its quick demise.

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