Product placements are deftly woven into BET's 'Harlem Heights'
By Brian Stelter
New York Times
(March 1, 2009) On "Harlem Heights," a new reality show on BET, the young and hip stars swish Listerine, treat their allergies with Zyrtec, and sweeten their coffee with Splenda.
For those who do not take note of the corporate logos on mouthwash, allergy medicines or artificial sweeteners, all three products are manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, one of the country's pre-eminent consumer goods companies.
The products were placed within the scenes of "Harlem Heights" as part of an extensive partnership between Johnson & Johnson and BET, the leading cable channel for black viewers. Through the arrangement, Listerine, Zyrtec and the skin care brand Ambi are woven into the stories of the eight young New York professionals who are profiled on "Harlem Heights." Splenda and the hand sanitizer Purell are also present as the cast members conduct their daily lives.
It is common, of course, for products to be featured on television shows. Some days, it seems that every commercial citation on a show is suspect; last month, the actress Tina Fey wound up issuing a denial after bloggers wondered whether the multiple references to McDonald's in an episode of NBC's "30 Rock" were product placements.
But advertiser integrations are more difficult to do in unscripted shows, by their very nature. "It is very much an art as opposed to a science," said Alvin Bowles, the senior vice president for integrated marketing at BET Networks.
As advertisers try to position themselves ever closer to the entertainment that viewers are watching, a rough formula is emerging. Before the production of "Harlem Heights," the cast members completed a survey of their health and wellness habits. The survey found an opportunity to integrate allergy medicine into the story line.
"You need to have those conversations far enough in advance so you understand exactly where some of the natural, organic places for integrations are, so things don't feel staged," Mr. Bowles said.
"Harlem Heights," which begins on Monday, is the latest spin on the docudrama genre that has included "Laguna Beach," "The Hills," and others that traffic in what could be called semi-reality. Set in Manhattan, the show follows eight members of what it calls the "young black elite."
The breadth of the Johnson & Johnson partnership is unprecedented for the network. The brand is also visible in the commercials for "Harlem Heights" and on the show's Web site.
BET's integrated marketing department is about two years old, making it younger than comparable efforts at the cable channel's corporate cousins MTV and VH1 at Viacom. Philippe Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom, has credited the integration opportunities with helping to secure price increases in the upfront period of advance advertising sales last year.
As BET has reoriented itself away from a home for sometimes-controversial music videos, it has invested considerable money in acquisitions and original content. Music videos now represent less than 20 percent of the network's lineup, compared with 70 percent four years ago.
After showing some ratings weakness last year, the network's audience numbers inched up in January, with a 6 percent gain over the same month last year.
The programs have given Mr. Bowles new products to promote to potential advertisers. He said for some advertisers, who may not have commercials that are tailored to the African-American audience, product promotion is an answer to that concern.
"By being able to utilize story-line integrations and being able to embed their product or message within the environment that we have control of, it allows us to offer a different message than we've been able to offer before," he said.
In the first three quarters of 2008, Johnson & Johnson spent $33.9 million on advertising to reach African-Americans, up 17 percent from the same period in 2007, according to the Nielsen Company. Only one company, Procter & Gamble, spent more.
Brooke Crittendon, one of the cast members in "Harlem Heights," said the integrations did not distract from the taping. "It sort of worked out," she said. "If I was filming a scene at my house and I was getting ready, obviously I'm going to get out of the shower and put lotion on."
That scene featured the skin cream Ambi, which Johnson & Johnson promotes by saying it meets "the needs of women of color." Ms. Crittendon, who also works for MTV as a producer for the documentary series "True Life," said it seemed that the burden of the integrations was shouldered by the producers.
Kurt Williamson, the co-creator and an executive producer, said he had tried to avoid incongruous uses of Johnson & Johnson products. None of the cast members put on a Nicorette patch or apply Rogaine on-camera. For the products that did appear, "we would come on the set with boxes and we would place things within the scenes, while trying to make it as organic as possible," Mr. Williamson said.
Viewers will judge whether the promotions seem forced. "We don't necessarily have to showcase them gargling for 30 seconds to make sure you get the full effect, but you can get the sense that Listerine is part of their daily process," Mr. Bowles said.
(Source: Target Market News)