In Japan, 'context' ads to story line

Product plugs woven into content not bothering viewers

Japanese advertising agencies are blurring the lines between television programs and the messages their clients want to get across to the viewing public by screen-testing "adverts" that blend in seamlessly with TV dramas in which they are dotted throughout.

Product placement is passe in Japan, where research has suggested that viewers do not respond to advertising that is too obvious. The result was the creation of "context-linked" commercials that continue the narrative of a show, with the same actors and story line, but promoting a product.

The brainchild of Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, the idea was tested last year on a one-off Yomiuri Telecasting drama titled "37 Degrees" and proved so effective in keeping the viewers' attention that the two companies are working on an entire series that incorporates the advertisers' props into the story line.

"Thinking that the commercials were part of the drama kept viewer numbers up during the commercial breaks and successfully got viewers to watch the ads as if they were part of the program," said Eiichi Hirano, media account director in Hakuhodo's television division.

"Extremely high advertising effects on viewers were also recorded across the full spectrum, from product awareness to interest, to favorable impression and purchase intention," he said.

According to their research, there was a 3% increase in the number of people watching through the context-linked ad spots, even though that is traditionally the time most people get up to make a cup of coffee.

Hakuhodo and the broadcaster are playing their cards close to the vest on the upcoming project, but they aim to build on the success of "37 Degrees."

Telling the tale of three young, urban couples, the show managed to work into the plotline a new Toyota minivan and Suntory whiskey.

In one scene, one of the main characters is in a cafe when a Toyota Sienta parks outside and a mother helps her kids out. The camera lingers over the vehicle as the onlooking star of the show wonders how it feels to be a mother.

The advertisement then kicks in, with the very same character punching in "happiness, marriage, minivan" on her computer at home and the Internet search taking her to the Toyota Web site.

"Regular product placement can easily look too obvious to viewers, but we made sure the product was necessary to the story," Hirano said. "For instance, the Toyota Sienta is shown in the first half of the program, but it is a symbol of the female lead's desire to get married and have a family."

Another approach Hakuhodo used in the same show for another Toyota vehicle, an Estima, was to repeatedly show the product in the drama and build up positive feelings for the show and transfer that into positive feelings for the product when the commercials aired, Hirano said.

When it came to working whiskey into the narrative, one of the characters was filmed complaining to a barman about her love life. Unsurprisingly, he serves her a glass of Suntory whiskey and waxes lyrical about a happy life.

In the bottom corner, the company's yellow logo is the only indication that viewers are watching a paid-for commercial.

"This was quite a new approach to advertising for us and we have to admit that we have had mixed feelings from the viewers," Tomomi Imai, a spokesman for Toyota, said. "There has been some negative feedback as well as positive comments.

"Some people wondered if it was a drama or a commercial, and when they found out that it was an advert, they said they felt 'cheated' because they thought it had been part of the show," he said. "Other people said it had been interesting."

At present, Toyota is examining alternative methods of getting its message across to consumers, Imai said, but would not rule out similar techniques in the future — particularly if technology that enables viewers to skip television adverts continues to gather pace.

Other companies have approached Hakuhodo to be involved in their next advertising campaign, so scriptwriters are undoubtedly busy incorporating a range of products and services into their tales.