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Originally published Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Bit roles, big business

Two years ago, InfoSpace was approached with one of the more unusual advertising proposals: Was it interested in having its search engine...

Seattle Times retail reporter

Two years ago, InfoSpace was approached with one of the more unusual advertising proposals: Was it interested in having its search engine appear in the film "Scooby-Doo 2"?

The company agreed, and the logo showed up on a fictitious search engine used to find villains. While the brand received five to 10 seconds of national exposure, "that was not the most ideal scenario," said Jon Nolz, InfoSpace's marketing director.

The company refined its strategy with what it considers better results. has appeared in more than 20 television shows, including the season premiere of CBS' "Ghost Whisperer" and the A&E reality show "Growing Up Gotti."

"It was an opportunity that came to us," Nolz gushed.

Product placement — the idea of having a product either appear on a set or be written into a script — has been around since the advent of television. More companies, however, are turning to it as a way to circumvent ad-skipping technology and reach an increasingly fragmented and commercial-wary consumer audience.

The product-placement market last year grew 30.5 percent to $3.46 billion — $1.87 billion of which came from television, according to alternative advertising and marketing-research firm PQ Media. The firm expects overall product-placement sales to increase 22.7 percent this year to $4.24 billion.

"If nobody's watching the 30-second spot anymore, then how are you going to reach your consumer?" said Nancie Tear, owner of the Vancouver, B.C.-based PropStar. "They're recognizing the fact that the 30-second [commercial] spot is dead."

"E.T." is model

When it comes to product placements, advertisers hold up Steven Spielberg's 1982 science-fiction film, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," as its model.

The script had originally called for Elliott to lure E.T. out of the bushes with a trail of M&Ms. When Mars turned down the film, Hershey's-brand Reeses Pieces were used instead.

Sales for the product climbed dramatically. "That's when people started looking at [product placement] as an alternative marketing strategy," said Leo Kivijarv, vice president and research director for PQ Media.

Advertisers credit Mark Burnett, the creator of the television show "Survivor," for the category's re-emergence. After aggressively and successfully pushing product placements in the first season, other reality shows followed suit.


During the 2004-2005 TV season, reality shows filled seven of the top 10 spots for product placements, according to Nielsen.

Of those, reality boxing show "The Contender" carried the highest number. In just 16 telecasts, viewers saw products 7,477 times and listened to 99 product mentions, Nielsen said.

That was nearly double CBS' "King of Queens," which took the top spot the year before with 3,691 total placements.

This concerns the 9,000-member Writers Guild of America, West, which has questioned the burgeoning practice of incorporating products into story lines.

Guild researcher Heather Szerlag said there's a distinction between product placement and product integration.

"It's pretty common to see a Coke can on a counter in a kitchen scene," she said. "We feel like product integration is taking it to the next level."

Szerlag said reality TV writers are asked to write brands into stories — even when they aren't a natural fit. She uses the example of the popular Discovery Show program "American Chopper," which built a bike to highlight Gillette's new razor, the M3Power Nitro.

"It's sort of a tough call [thinking] why a bunch of tough motorcycle guys would be excited to celebrate a razor," she said. "It was up to the editors to decide how to make it work."

Tear, of PropStar, said it's clear when a TV show sacrifices the story line for a product. You can only do it so long before ratings fall.

"The integrity shouldn't be manipulated so a product is forced in there," she said. "If you're going to have a product forced in there, no one's going to watch that show. That product placement becomes worthless."

Idea caught on

Mitel Networks of Ottawa got its phones installed on the set of NBC's long-running show "ER" after seeing a competitor jump into the field several years ago.

Mitel phones have since appeared on TV shows such as ABC's "Boston Legal" and the film "Fever Pitch." While it's difficult to measure the impact of its investment, the company has seen results.

The owner of a California medical center, for instance, contacted Mitel to place a large order after seeing the phones on a "Boston Legal" episode.

"On national TV [a commercial] would cost you a fortune," said Simon Gwatkin, Mitel's vice president of strategic marketing. "Here, we're talking tens of thousands a year."

Nolz, of InfoSpace, said he considers a product placement a success when a character goes to a computer, types in a search term, hits the button and gets the right answer.

On A&E's "Growing Up Gotti," for instance, Victoria Gotti uses to search Ellis Island records for her great-grandfather.

"Then they see the successful search tied with the brand," Nolz said.

Mitel said it plans to keep its product-placement advertising budget steady. Gwatkin, the marketing director, said that while he enjoys seeing the phone systems on TV shows and in films, there's one script he wouldn't approve:

"I wouldn't like to see it flung across the room," he said.

"Russell Crowe did, in fact, throw a Mitel phone," he said referring to the highly publicized June incident in Manhattan.

How did they know? "[The hotel] is one of our customers," he said.

Monica Soto Ouchi: 206-515-5632 or

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