What Your TV Is Telling You to Do
NBC Universal's Shows Are Sending Viewers Signals to Recycle, Exercise and Eat Right. Why?

The Wall Street Journal | April 7, 2010
By Amy Chozick

In just one week on NBC, the detectives on "Law and Order" investigated a cash-for-clunkers scam, a nurse on "Mercy" organized a group bike ride, Al Gore made a guest appearance on "30 Rock," and "The Office" turned Dwight Schrute into a cape-wearing superhero obsessed with recycling.

Coincidence? Hardly. NBC Universal planted these eco-friendly elements into scripted television shows to influence viewers and help sell ads.

The tactic—General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal calls it "behavior placement"—is designed to sway viewers to adopt actions they see modeled in their favorite shows. And it helps sell ads to marketers who want to associate their brands with a feel-good, socially aware show.

Unlike with product placement, which can seem jarring to savvy viewers, the goal is that viewers won't really notice that Tina Fey is tossing a plastic bottle into the recycle bin, or that a minor character on "Law and Order: SVU" has switched to energy-saving light bulbs. "People don't want to be hit over the head with it," says NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. "Putting it in programing is what makes it resonate with viewers."

TV has always had the ability to get millions of people to mimic a beloved character. Ever since Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" stopped in at the Magnolia Bakery, fans of the show wait in long lines for the once-quiet shop's $2.75 cupcakes. When Jennifer Aniston as Rachel on "Friends" cut her hair, salons across the country reported requests for the shaggy, highlighted, layered look known as "the Rachel."

This is the power of persuasion that NBCU hopes to tap. "Subtle messaging woven into shows mainstreams it, and mainstreaming is an effective way to get a message across," says Lauren Zalaznick, president of NBCU Women & Lifestyle Entertainment Networks, which oversees the effort.

Since fall 2007, network executives have been asking producers of almost every prime-time and daytime show to incorporate a green storyline at least once a year. The effort now takes place for a week in April and November. Starting April 19 this year, 40 NBC Universal outlets will feature some 100 hours of green-themed programming, including an episode of the Bravo reality series "Millionaire Matchmaker" in which a 39-year-old tycoon with an eco-friendly clothing line goes into a rage after his blind date orders red meat.

In June, NBCU plans a week in which programming will emphasize healthy eating and exercise: The idea is that viewers will watch the shows and then spring into action. "It's about incorporating a marketer's message into a thematic environment," says Mike Pilot, president of sales and marketing at NBC Universal.

While the network says it tries to incorporate green programming throughout the year, the special emphasis twice a year creates an "event" that provides opportunities to advertisers, an NBC spokeswoman says. For instance, a Wal-Mart ad focusing on locally grown produce ran this past November after an episode of the medical drama "Trauma" in which emergency medic Rabbit rescues a window washer dangling precariously from a building; medics are alerted to the situation by a man sitting in his hybrid vehicle.

Behavior placement gives marketers extra incentive to advertise at a time when digital video recorders equip viewers with an unprecedented ability to skip commercials, says Jason Kanefsky, a media buyer at Havas's MPG. "You're not forcing your way into a program in any shape or form," he says. "You're just nodding your head at a program." ABC, CBS and FOX have plenty of product placement but haven't taken the step into behavior placement, network spokesmen say.

TV writers and producers are less enamored with behavior placement. Already on the hook to create holiday-themed episodes and accommodate marketers in other ways, some producers and writers grumble about additional demands. Requests for green-themed storylines come at the start of the year when programming executives sit down with producers and lay out which company-wide themes and holidays they will be working into shows.

Producers do have some leeway. "The Office," for example, embraces Valentine's Day, Halloween and Christmas but refuses to incorporate Easter since it isn't part of office culture.

Angela Bromstad, president of primetime entertainment at NBC, says her only specific request is that writers incorporate something related to the environment into a storyline and not make it a throwaway line of dialogue. "We haven't had any pushback," she says.

Paul Lieberstein, an executive producer on "The Office" who also plays the character Toby Flenderson, says he was thinking about making Dwight a superhero called "Recyclops" before network executives ordered up an environmental storyline.

"In this case it fell right into the realm of what we do," Mr. Lieberstein says. "We'd have to say no if it hurt the integrity of the show."

"Heroes" creator Tim Kring says behavior placement is easier than incorporating a specific brand, which is what the science-fiction series about ordinary people with superhuman abilities, recently did for sponsor Sprint Nextel Corp. This past fall, members of a carnival loaded a pickup truck with recyclables as Masi Oka, in the role of Hiro Nakamura, talks about giving back to the Earth. "Someone has to pay for our big, expensive television shows," Mr. Kring says.

Armed with its own data showing consumers are wiling to spend more if a brand seems eco-friendly, NBC in 2007 launched "Green Week," the programming component of a larger "Green is Universal" corporate campaign. That effort brought in an estimated $20 million in advertising revenue from 20 sponsors, according to industry estimates. Many new clients, including the nutrition bar Soy Joy, came on board, NBC says. In April 2008, the network added another week of green-themed programming, when network logos go green and on-air promos tout NBC's support for the environment. But there are no obvious cues to alert viewers to the green emphasis in programming.

To court advertisers targeting specific demographics, NBC researchers conduct regular focus groups. Viewers are broken into categories based on their favorite shows and their level of concern about the environment. "Alpha ecos" are mostly women who drive hybrids, eat organic and watch the Bravo channel. "Eco-logicals" are older viewers who have "traditional Midwestern values," drink Diet Coke, drive domestic cars and love basic-cable channel USA. When PepsiCo Inc.'s Sun Chips brand launched a compostable chip bag, executives wanted to reach young, edgy consumers who watch "30 Rock." Pepsi purchased a skit starring Kenneth, the show's lovable page. It will run during a commercial break of an eco-friendly episode this fall. "This audience has a tendency to be a little more cynical about blatant product placement," says Gannon Jones, vice president of marketing for PepsiCo's Frito-Lay unit.

Product placement on TV dates back to early soap operas sponsored by Procter & Gamble Co. Programming has been trying to get across messages, like Don't Smoke or Say No to Drugs, for almost as long. In the 1970s, libraries nationwide saw a spike in interest after the "Happy Days" character Fonzie got a library card. Last year, a character in the top-rated telenovela on NBC Universal's Telemundo, "Mas Sabe el Diablo" ("The Devil Knows Best"), had a job recruiting Latinos in New York City to participate in the 2010 Census. (Telemundo voluntarily took on the message for a group that is historically undercounted. It ran its efforts by Census authorities to make sure it had the details right.)

The messages NBC gravitates toward tend to be fairly innocuous. For instance, climate change may be controversial, but people can agree that taking care of the environment is a good thing. Same with diet and exercise: It may be controversial to ask people to quit smoking but people don't argue with taking better care of your body.

Still, do viewers really want their TV sets reminding them to recycle and go to the gym? Executives say the more seamlessly integrated the behavior is, the less it feels like the show is trying to manipulate. "The last thing you want to do is not reach the audience in the right way and make them mad at you," says NBCU's Ms. Zalaznick. Viewers don't mind if "you do a little good in the world, and you're still making your show."

For its first televised ad campaign, Vermont-based cleaning product manufacturer Seventh Generation Inc. paid NBCU to use Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, stars of Oxygen's reality series "Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood," in a vignette about organic gardening that will run later this month during a commercial break. The corresponding episode will feature the couple gardening and composting. Dave Kimbell, Seventh Generation's chief marketing officer, says the company doesn't use product placement but sees behavior placement as a more effective way to express the brand's values and "create a dialogue" with consumers.

The trick is to not turn off viewers by being lectury or too obvious, producers say. "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" had a segment that urged viewers to turn off their lights for five seconds to conserve energy. But each time the lights went out in the studio, a Latina janitor screamed "Ay dios mio!" and a gunshot went off killing a member of the Fallon cast. "At that hour people just want to laugh and have fun. They don't want to be preached at," the host says.