On Feb. 23rd, Stephen Colbert included an integrated sponsorship on The Colbert Report. Colbert refers to these product integrations as brand-funded requests from the network and this most recent “Sponsortunity” was brought to you by Nabisco’s “Wheat Thins” crackers. Colbert goes on to satirically discuss the product and the brand’s ‘important’ role in our everyday lives based on a directional memo provided by the brand. While viewer’s may have been ‘cracking’ up over the broadcast some of the references may have had Nabisco execs tuning out.

Colbert refers to an “actual memo” he received from the makers of Wheat Thins for the purposes of the sponsorship, which details what the role of the Wheat Thins brand is (and is not) and provides instruction for how he should (and should not) interact with the product on the show. Colbert quotes from the memo sarcastically referencing the importance of Wheat Thins in our lives as the “snack for anyone who is actively seeking experiences” and that “Wheat Thins keep you on the path to, and proud of, doing what you love to do no matter what that is…” For example, “driving kids to practice, watching a movie” and “arson”, as added by Colbert. He goes on to discuss further descriptions in the memo, including that “Wheat Thins are not a creator of isolated, un-sharable experiences; they are a connector of like-minded people encouraging sharing”. And Wheat Thins are “not an exclusive or exclusionary brand” so, as Colbert jokes, “blacks, jews get in here!” In addition, Stephen reads from the memo that the Wheat Thins cracker brand is “not a crusader or rebel looking to change individual paths (or the world)”. The memo further goes on to caution against showing over consumption and requests that Colbert not show (as in a bowl), or eat, more than the recommended serving size of 16 crackers. This leads Colbert to obnoxiously stuff 16 crackers in his mouth at one time and then, in a rebellious move, to attempt to add a 17th cracker, which results in the broadcast cutting out citing “technical difficulties”. The scene is followed by a ‘fauxpology’ – an apology made to appear as though it was either network or brand-mandated but which is clearly incorporated into the sketch as a continuation of the brand mockery.  The skit is likely to be perceived as nothing more than a good natured jab at the brand for its attempts to control the parameters of the sponsorship. For all execs participating in branded entertainment, however, it is also a good reminder of the potential pitfalls involved in engaging in product integrations.

Product placements in film, television and other entertainment vehicles are not uncommon. They come in many different forms, from passive product placement, where products can been visually seen or are referred to in commentary or dialogue, to active integration and usage by the hosts and/or characters of the entertainment program. A classic and well known example of product integration is Coca-Cola’s product placement on American Idol where large Coca-Cola branded glasses are shown prominently placed in front of each judge and from which the judges drink (presumably a Coke product) for the duration of the show.  Product integrations provide another avenue by which brands can reach consumers, and they can be enormously successful (e.g., Reese’s Pieces in E.T.; Ray Bans in Risky Business; Mini Cooper in The Italian Job). On the flip side, however, they also bring certain inherent risks and additional concerns.  There is no specific model for product integrations. Brands may pitch to have their product included in a particular program or the producers may (with or without permission) include a brand as a fundamental element of the script and/or character development.  Product integrations are secured in a number of ways. For example, they can be paid for by the brand, the products themselves may be offered in a barter exchange for inclusion in the program without any payment, or the placement may be provided at the producer’s cost – this usually occurs when the inclusion of the product is an essential element of the plot or will add some value to developing the strength of a show’s character.

With traditional advertising, the advertiser has complete control over the messaging, content and placement of the advertisement. This includes what is said about the product, when it is said, and how and when the product is used (or not used). In contrast, product placement deals (depending on the particular arrangement between the brand and the producer) usually require at least some relinquishment of control over these factors. Too much control can cause the integration to appear opportunistic and transparent, which may degrade the authenticity and creativity of the programming and alienate viewers. On the other hand, having no parameters over the use of the product may backfire resulting in the product being used in a derogatory or inappropriate manner, which can have a significant negative impact on the value of the brand and, ultimately, the bottom line.  So, regardless of whether it’s an integration in online, film or television, or the genre is live action, comedy or drama, or the program is scripted, unscripted, news or reality-based, brands engaging in product integrations must participate in a bit of a balancing act between relinquishing control and taking on risk.

The parameters of the agreed upon deal are usually governed by contract. Typically speaking, however, product integration contracts will include a bar against injunctive or equitable relief, so that any claim a brand may have for a violation of the terms of the integration will be limited to an action for damages and the show will continue to be marketed, sold and distributed without alteration or removal of the offending product integration.

Colbert’s presentation of Wheat Thins in the “sponsortunity” segment appears to be an example of a brand’s failed attempt to limit or control the form of the integration.  That said, Wheat Thins must have been comfortable assuming the risk of Stephen Colbert himself. Anyone who has ever watched The Colbert Report knows that Colbert doesn’t often do what he’s told. Colbert ends the segment by saying “join me next time when I will read the memo from someone else who gave me money.”