Saturday, April 17, 2010

You will submit: Behavioral Messaging Placement in Television Programming

A recent WSJ article (What Your TV Is Telling You to Do) reveals that NBC has been deliberately inserting storylines and character actions into television programs in an effort to reinforce eco-friendly attitudes and behaviors. The shows cited include The Office, 30 Rock, Top Chef, Heros and Law & Order.

Excerpt: 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. (end)

Although the efforts are positioned as being benevolent and supporting socially positive ends I have a couple of big issues with this. First. The entertainment industry has always rejected the idea that the content they produce — specifically content that is violent or sexual — impacts and influences individuals or society at large. Although they tie the examples in the article to specifically positive sentiments, the article and quotes from a TV executive indicate a recognition that repeated exposure and reinforcement "mainstream" the attitudes and behaviors that are portrayed. This is mind blowing. I can't believe anyone in the entertainment industry would admit to being able or capable of shaping mass behavior.

Excerpt: 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. (end)

My second issue is that once such methodologies and processes are instituted they will expand and become more sophisticated. Recognizing that you are able to influence social behavior don't you need to formulate policy on the types of social behaviors you seek to change? This is inherently political. If these programs are tied to the types of sentiments that clients want to be associated with and the behaviors they seek to reinforce there is the potential for this to become grossly insidious and mercenary.


kathleen said...

What are commercials and product placement if not tv's attempt to change your behavior?

Societies work (when they work) because the majority of people on the curve need to conform and feel part of the group. TV is now the model of what all the cool kids are doing.

Thomas Sherman said...

Sure, TV commercials are designed to influence peoples behaviors and beliefs, but there used to be a very clear distinction between the "shows" and those little units we all understood were there to sell us things.

Even product placements with shows are obvious ham-handed attempts to say "hey look at this, isn't it cool".

Behavior programs, that further blur the line between content and advertising, that target things beyond reinforcing functional and emotional benefits of consumer products takes us down a an entirely different path.

On the subject of society's need for collectively focused behavior, that is another matter all together. I actually have a half finished essay on the subject. Individuality on a societal scale is indeed overrated, without people competing for similar goals and engaging in similar activities advancement would be impossible.

LoveMyCOBRA said...

this is why cable is the shit. they live of subscriptions, not special interests served by advertisers. cable brought us better programing, a zillion channels, broadband to our homes, on demand, let's face it; cable company service may universally suck, but it's done more for us than free tv.

free tv is artificially flavored, in every way imaginable.

you can quote me, bitches.