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Embedded Advertising in Reality TV

Posted by Rebekah Toth Burns on February 23, 2015

No matter what you call it: branded entertainment, embedded sponsorship, embedded advertising, embedded marketing, or product placement, brands have a prominent place in global video entertainment. What are the trends in embedded advertising and the psychology of why it works?


Over a decade ago Scott Donaton, then Editor of Advertising Age, recognized the rising trend of DVR vs real time TV viewers. In his book Madison & Vine, he surmised that advertisers should partner with entertainment companies for brands to maximize audience’s attention. Donaton writes in his article Madison & Vine: A Look Back, a Look Ahead, “In a speech both famous and infamous for its blunt nature, Steve Heyer, then the president of Coca-Cola, told attendees at Ad Age’s very first Madison & Vine conference, “I am describing a magnitude and urgency of change that isn’t evolutionary, it’s transformational. This convergence of content, media and marketing is born of economic necessity and marketplace opportunity. We need each other. If a new model isn’t developed, the old one will simply collapse.” The reluctant partnership of Hollywood studios and top advertising agencies was formed, west coast and east coast together, fueled by the bottom line. Once the engines of collaboration were opened partnerships took on all new forms.

From “a discipline born of fear” as Donaton put it when talking about DVRs a decade ago, we have seen branded entertainment evolve in its’ partnerships, platforms, devices, brand placement, and viewers.

  • Partnerships: From Hollywood studios to YouTube and back again. Brands are wise to the fact that solid ROI can come from partnerships with all types of content creators. Once talent enters the cycle they are commoditized on all platforms: YouTube stars move to TV, Reality TV stars make social explode, Vine talent host red carpets, and Hollywood A-list actors are streaming.
  • Platforms: Blockbuster movies, scripted TV shows and unscripted TV shows on broadcast, cable and streaming, video games, branded websites, established video platforms, and social sites, the layers of platforms are prolific, interdependent, and brands are benefiting.
  • Devices: Programming across devices is now embarrassed not feared. A destination (the theater) and companion (mobile phone), programming is made for real time viewers and repurposed for the +7. (A term from Neilson that explains viewers who are watching content seven days after airing.)
  • Brand Placement: Branded entertainment ranges from subtle to in-your-face. To illustrate subtle branded entertainment, Donaton cited the case where Dove funded the movie “The Woman” as a part of their investment to increase self-esteem in woman. After seeing the movie the viewer would have no idea that Dove was behind the project.  Reality TV often goes with the in-your-face model where the branding is scripted into the show, as 24 Hour Fitness is seen on Biggest Loser.
  • Viewers: Younger viewers not only accept but embrace branded advertising as a part of life and content creators themselves. This evolution is best captured with big data in the amount of likes, shares, and video views campaigns like the Smell of Old Spice command.

“In effect, this gave advertisers permission to move more boldly in the direction of creating original content rather than just inserting their products in other people’s TV shows and films. Brands discovered they could bring content directly to consumers and that audiences would seek out and share work they enjoyed. Especially if it made them laugh” said Donaton.

Trends in Branded Entertainment

Funny is Money! Comedy Central did a study in twelve countries with 3,500 participants where they asked viewers to watch comedic and dramatic content complete with commercials. They used facial recognition technology to measure emotional engagement. This study showed that when content is funny, viewers were more emotionally engaged and that level of engagement carried into the commercials. During the 2014 PR Summit: Winning with Wit: Branded Entertainment and the Age of Viral Humor this idea is explored further. Carve out 48 minutes to watch this panel…light bulbs will go off, no pun intended, watch and you will understand.

Tatiana Simonian, VP of Branded Entertainment for Neilson, says on Nielsen TV “Brands are Pumping up the Volume with Entertainment” brands can use branded entertainment to implement a perception shift and increase sales but it requires investing into a marketing and data strategy plan.


Ian Zimmerman PH.D. says in his article “Product Placement Can Be A Lot More Powerful Than We Realize” for Psychology Today  “Product placement can directly influence our implicit attitudes, such that our attitude toward a TV program or film becomes unknowingly associated with products placed in that TV program or film.” Zimmerman is saying branded advertising works because our brains associate the feelings the content evokes with the products spoken about or shown. He goes on to say“…background placements are less likely to elicit conscious thoughts about the product, conscious thought having the effect of directly influencing explicit attitudes.”

Even more astonishing is that we override the feeling of being manipulated by the brand or advertisement and purchase products we identify with ourselves. Zimmerman explains “First, psychologists have actually found we’re more likely to buy something we identify with than something we like.  Second, it shows that even when we view placements skeptically they can still give us a favorable inclination toward placed brands.  Taken together, this means that we might buy products we’ve seen placed in TV or films even if we view the placements as an attempt at manipulation.”

Ratings for Reality TV

According to the article from Neilson, “Building Time-Shifted Audiences: Does Social TV Play a Role” viewers are increasingly watching programming after the initial air time.  Neilson explains their finding, “Time-shifted viewing has become increasingly important to networks and advertisers, with some networks seeing over 50% of their 18-34 aged viewership coming in the seven-day window after the live airing. In fact, several broadcast networks have stated their intentions to supplement daily overnight ratings with projections for their live “+7” audiences (i.e., the number of people who watch the show during the seven day period after the live airing)” although, “reality series were 31% more likely to be watched live.”

Two years earlier Neilson reported that Reality made up 16% of the primetime viewership, 17% of TV Ad spend, 14% of time-shifted viewership, and a whopping 58% of product placements.

A Global Reality View

Reality TV is a global business, as shows get replicated from country to country so does the advertising model.

The last season of Big Brother Canada was sponsored by Twistos, a PepsiCo brand, “sponsoring the season’s “twists.”  Aptly titled “Twistos Twists,” the sponsorship sees fans vote to affect the series in different ways, including choosing which houseguest from the secret room will join the main house.” says Michael Kolberg in his article “Sponsored Twists, Divergent Games on Big Brother Canada”.

Peking Tan writes in the “Rise of Reality Shows and the Fall of TV Commercials” that in China the magic season for advertisers to sink their dollars is the second season. And those advertising will get the most return if they are the main sponsor.

Today’s market demands that global brands be agile. Cost and devices dictate the mediums in which their audience is reached. What works today may not work tomorrow, from reality TV to YouTube media moguls and back again. What trends are you seeing in branded entertainment? Share your thoughts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.

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