Selling Products Through Unscripted Programming

By Eric Reynolds

At the dawn of the 21st century, primetime TV introduced the unscripted genre of television most widely referred to as “reality.” This is due to the candid nature of the genre relying not on scripted material and actors, but on the unscripted lives of “real” individuals who reflect different parts of society. The situations these individuals are in range from desert islands to a camera-rigged house with a group of people. The “group of people” make up the narrative format of the programs, but there is another fundamental aspect associated with the “reality” genre: product placement and cross marketing. Elimination-style programs such as Survivor and The Apprentice often build their narrative arcs around the placement of a product. The products featured in the shows reflect the corporations that are utilizing the shows to maximize said products’ outreach (Benkler). The narratives are always reliant on fresh, strong characters that keep viewers interested, but networks have also used cross marketing to help maximize the use of their stronger, more memorable characters. Competition-based reality programs work to promote capitalism through their narrative format, via cross marketing and product placement.

Survivor became the first overnight phenomenon of the reality genre during the summer of 2000. The globalization of unscripted programming came after a wave of success in Europe at the close of the 20th century. The concept of Survivor came from a Swedish program that premiered in 1997 called Expedition Robinson, and it is largely responsible for the initial format of the American program (McCarthy). Another reality show CBS premiered that summer was Big Brother, a name and format borrowed from the Netherlands. American television adapted dozens of other foreign program’s formats within the next couple of months. Despite the ongoing parade of shows that followed, none were able to surpass the profitability that Survivor brought to CBS. Having long been behind NBC and ABC, CBS president Les Moonves’ decided risk to cater to the “MTV generation” had paid off (Benkler). The show’s format set a standard for many of the competition-based shows that followed: pit sixteen contestants against each other in a specific location (in this case, a remote island). Following a may-the-best-man-win theme, one castaway would be voted off the island every three days, until a single player remained and collected a $1 million prize. After the first three weeks of the show, each contestant kicked off of the island would make a guest appearance on CBS’ The Early Show to talk about their experience (Early Show). It was a not-so-sly move on the network’s part to shamelessly incorporate Survivor into every window of programming they possibly could. Both of the Late Shows hosted by David Letterman and Craig Kilborn featured interviews with castaways and Survivor-themed segments (Craig Kilborn). Perhaps most appetizing for the capitalist firm was the idea of Survivor-related advertisements. Reebok featured an ad with eliminated contestants just weeks into the show, an obvious attempt at riding the wave of a program’s success (Dehnart). To run an ad during the finale of the first season of Survivor, corporations had to fork over $600,000 (Benkler) for every 30 seconds. The business of the emotions that the show elicited produced an unheard of level of audience interaction. A money-hungry network like CBS could not pass on the idea of directly plugging specific brands and goods. Within the first two seasons alone, contestants received “rewards” like a phone call home thanks to the Ericsson World Phone, a Bud Light, Doritos, Mountain Dew, and various items from Target (“Survivor: Borneo”). Is it safe to assume that all of these brands were eager sponsors of the show? Yes, it is. Executive Producer Mark Burnett made his priorities clear in an interview with the Associated Press: “My shows create an interest and people will look at them, but the endgame here is selling products in stores—a car, deodorant, running shoes. It is the future of television” (Associated Press). Thus, the basis of the genre acts as a modern avenue for corporate advertisers and the capitalist firm.

Survivor is currently airing its twenty-third installment on CBS and continues to pull in ten million viewers per episode. The amount of product placement per season has remained steady over the years, but the means of presenting each of the products have evolved. The early seasons of the show saw the contestants win useful rewards, like shampoo. While the brand of the shampoo was prominent, it served a purpose for the contestants who won it: they smelled terrible and needed a shower. Today, rewards come in the form of an advance screening of Adam Sandler’s new film, Jack and Jill (“Double Agent”). Whether or not one would consider this a “reward,” the episode dedicated about a minute to screening a few selected clips from the film, effectively squeezing two extra commercials into the program. Of course, this is in conjunction with the ads that ran for the movie twice during the episode’s official commercial “break.” Not surprisingly, the company that launched TriStar Pictures with CBS and HBO in 1982, Columbia Pictures, distrubuted the film. With so many different facets of the network’s programming plugging the film, the firm has successfully monopolized the network’s airtime. Other programs, such as Big Brother, have also utilized this type of product integration: the “reality” of the house guests’ situation is separation from the outside world as “Big Brother” records their every move. While not having the comfort of a book or television, the welcome reward of an advance screening of a new film fits perfectly into the narrative arc of the “cut-off” contestants. On NBC’s The Apprentice, Mark Burnett teamed up with Donald Trump to create a program that promotes a multitude of brands, including Trumps’ own. Using the stories of the competitors vying to apprentice for Trump, thus further glorifying his brand, the show’s producers can easily incorporate products that used in competitions. Trump assigns a task involving a specific brand or product, and the contestant who can make the most money from an original idea promoting the brand or product wins the challenge. The bottom line is that the point of The Apprentice is for each contestant to make the most money. This is a reflection of the capitalist firm’s use of a show like The Apprentice to generate their own revenue.

The Bachelor is one of the most popular relationship-oriented shows on television. It garnered the highest ratings among the key 18–49 demographic during its first season. Over the initial five seasons, the show averaged 11-17 million viewers; it is among the top five most profitable reality TV shows, with a profit of $38.2 million in the fourth season alone, and a rate of $231,400 per advertising spot (Dubrofsky). The Bachelor presents an attractive, eligible bachelor who courts twenty-five women, each hoping to become his fiancée by the end of the program. In the spirit of gender equality, ABC developed a comparable show, The Bachelorette, where 25 men court one woman with the same end goal in mind. The rules for the two gender-differentiated shows are identical. The shows’ website describes them as “a series of fun, exciting and exotic dates that will elicit real and raw emotions.” Although they may not all be genuine emotions, The Bachelor(ette) is clearly an emotional roller coaster as the suitors draw constantly on their emotions as part of their strategy to win the heart of their object of affection. In its display of lavish consumption, the show exemplifies a “romantic utopia” that inverts capitalist values into symbols of primitive simplicity and pure emotionality, but emphasizes the intensity of romance in the absence of work (Illouz). Here, all elements of traditional work are exorcised, and women (or men) are “kept” in the context of a harem (Dubrofsky) wherethe enjoy private jets, mansions and other luxuries. The leisurely activities that frame the show constitute immaterial labor that the firm harnesses for financial gain. Essentially, the audience is buying the featured products, characters and ideas.

Many claim that the current permeation of reality television is proof of a somewhat weakened intellectual economy. “Reality TV today is a cheap endlessly recyclable and licensable programming format, a product of the collapse of the three-network system and the rise of cable television and new networks like Fox” (McCarthy). From a marketing perspective, there are few better ways to promote a product than by featuring it in a context that showcases its functionality and value. This is particularly true when a show and a brand share a common target audience, and the show brings with it an existing following and loyal fan base. A brand that is equally likely to appeal to that audience is able to affect it in a meaningful way. The Reality TV Insights Survey (Deeth) found that although a majority of viewers do not like product placement, and according to 94% of viewers what they have seen on a reality show influences them, making it an extremely effective form of advertising. What happens, however, when those consumers see product placements translated for the web? Brands may be able to influence viewers through the small screen, but can the image sustain itself online? Are those who follow a brand from a show to its site satisfied with the payoff? Does its offline integration into reality TV correlate with what is expressed online? This is one dilemma that is not entirely in the marketer’s hands. What happens on a show’s related site is the product of publisher negotiations, inventory availability, creative availability, and countless other factors. The firm may not have as much control over their cross-media product placement campaign as they would like, but that does not mean they can not approach it with a savvy strategy.

Contestants on Lifetime’s Project Runway must to make outfits out of materials purchased only in a pet store, and yet their design room could not be more high tech. For three years now, the series has maintained a partnership with Intel and HP, with the two brands supplying technology that is intended to facilitate the design process and inspire creativity. For instance, earlier this season the show’s designers were required to use it for a challenge in which they had to create their own textile print as well as film and produce a video to accompany the resultant fashion show.

On the program, the products play a significant role. Online, the two brands take things a step further by continuing to educate consumers about the products while also encouraging sales transactions. The “Rule the Runway Sweepstakes” may live on, but the page looks more like it belongs on one of the brands’ own sites. It includes product-specific banners and an entire gallery of HP products that link directly to the HP online store.

This form of integration is not the only means of achieving profit maximization. The idea of cross marketing within an unscripted program is another way of attempting to attract viewers. The first time this happened on network television was during the summer of 2001 on CBS’ Big Brother 2. The first two seasons of Survivor had just ended, and, to bridge the gap until the next fall edition of the show, CBS used Big Brother as a summer replacement for their fresh new set of loyal viewers. During the second season, four contestants from Survivor entered the Big Brother house to capitalize on the success of Survivor and simultaneously attract viewers from that program to Big Brother. Survivor soon implemented the idea of an “all-star” season, in which past contestants who have proven memorable and entertaining the first time come back to give the network more of what has proven affective. Boston Rob was a well-known contestant from Survivor who came back for an all-star season, met his fiancée in fellow all-star Amber Brkich while taping the show, and eventually had his marriage to her payed for and taped by CBS. He has since appeared on two additional seasons of Survivor, and a season of The Amazing Race with Amber. Not surprisingly, The Amazing Race is another CBS reality series. This idea of re-using a character that evoked a large reaction from the viewers lends itself perfectly to the logic of safety. Cross marketing has saved networks money in terms of casting, locations, and programming content itself.

The ways in which products and cross marketing are intertwined with unscripted programming is a testament to the capitalist firm’s evolving methods of reaching young viewers. The traditional use of riveting story arcs keep the interest of the loyal viewer, while the greater agenda that is generating the most revenue possible keeps the interest of the corporations and firms. Together, the two work hand-in-hand delivering entertainment that subconsciously fuels this vapid society’s material desires.

Works Cited

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