Media's New Tools for Molding Audience Behaviors

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A few years ago, the fictional character Carrie Bradshaw from the TV show "Sex and the City" went to the real Magnolia Bakery on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village and bought a cupcake to eat.  Ever since then, the tour buses have disgorged passengers to wait in long lines and pay $2.75 for cupcakes. 

According to The Wall Street Journal,1when Rachel, a character on the TV series "Friends," got her hair cut, beauty parlors everywhere were deluged with customers wanting the same layered look, which became known as "The Rachel."

These phenomena gave TV executives at NBC an idea:  Why not try to create the same effect on purpose?  Model selected behaviors that you'd like to induce in people and reap the benefits.  In this case, producers decided to promote green lifestyles by having characters use compact fluorescent light bulbs and recycle plastic bottles on screen.  In April 2010, NBC featured some 100 hours of programming with a "green theme," and in June, the network will run programs that model exercise and healthful eating.

This practice, known as behavioral placement, not only promotes what the network thinks is "a socially popular theme," but it also attracts those advertisers who like to be associated with something that they perceive as responsible.  These behaviors might range from eliminating plastic water bottles to driving hybrid vehicles. 

For marketers, the motivation isn't simply altruism.  Back in 2007, research showed that people were willing to pay more for brands that they perceived as "caring about the environment."  It's no surprise then, that when NBC launched its behavioral placement scheme, 20 sponsors jumped in with $20 million in advertising. 

All of this "green-themed material" comes to viewers unannounced.  That is, the viewers are unaware that they're being manipulated.  Product placement, such as showing a sitcom character holding a Coke, has been around for decades.  But it has always been pretty obvious to savvy viewers. 

By contrast, behavioral placement is difficult to distinguish from ordinary parts of the story line.  And, many of the themes are so topical that they could simply have emerged from a writer's imagination — such as the reality series "Tori and Dean," on which NBC has conspired to have the characters start an organic garden and begin composting. 

There's a sound reason for not letting viewers know what's going on.  According to research published in the Journal of Advertising Research,2 the less attention someone is paying to ads, the more effective they are...

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