That certainly was the case in the hours after the March 13 episode of the CW drama "Smallville," a new show, after the writers' strike ceased production. Cadbury Adams offered up a multifaceted integration for its Stride gum in the episode, highlighted by the brand playing a significant role in the story line (a character gains "'elastic' super powers after chewing special, kryptonite-infused Stride Gum").
That, in turn, yielded multiple audio mentions and product shots (it was one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX). Stride was also touted on a "brought to you" billboard during a break. And during another pause, viewers were directed to the CW Web site for a Stride-related contest where a year's supply of the "ridiculously long-lasting gum" goes to the winner.
Purveyors of product placement certainly fill hours trying to divine the fine line between when their efforts may lead to sale--or create that buzz--and when they cross the line, perhaps into the dreaded infomercial territory.
But Stride may have done just that on "Smallville," which would seem to illustrate a broader, looming problem for marketers. Start with the normative that advertisers hungry to reach the 18-to-34 demo must increasingly maneuver around two types of commercial-skippers: actual and virtual. The "actuals" are the much-hyped DVR-zapping-types, the "virtuals" the group that's so bombarded by marketing messages they're likely to just flat-out tune out.
Enter product placement. It's arguably DVR-proof and if executed delicately (respectfully?), the tactic can still reach those "virtuals."
But the rub: The 18-to-34 set has arguably become so hip to product placement, it could now be viewing it as just another link in the ad-creep chain. And that can result in a buzz-maker becoming a buzz kill.
Take the "Watching the CW" blog following the Stride link:
"Talk about product placement. What do you think Stride had to pay to be so prominently featured in this week's episode of 'Smallville'? I nearly cringed at the obvious advertising."
Later, the blogger offered the feared "shameless promotion" charge. And the negatives didn't stop there.
From TV Squad:
The writer wonders whether the "line about the flavor lasting so long (could) have been more of a product placement? I think not."
And then there was a Sci-Fi/Fantasy blog on About.com:
That brought allegations of reaching the "dreaded infomercial territory" in a 539-word diatribe under the header "Smallville Product Placement Hits New Low":
"So we wait patiently for new episodes of 'Smallville' to arrive in the strike-inflicted bursts we've been getting so far this year. We settle in for ... one on Thursday, the first new episode in a month. And what do we get? An hour-long commercial for Stride gum, 'Smallville's' obnoxiously visible new uber-sponsor."
But it all highlights the tangled situation product placers are now in with younger viewers. Could a promising opportunity be close to jumping the shark? Delivering a message that's sticky is now increasingly tricky.