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CELEBRATE! profile: Alex Walton '10

How often do you notice the products that appear in your favorite television shows? And what do you think about those brands? Alex Walton ’10 sought to answer those questions, as well as gauge the opinions of broadcasting professionals, in his study of product placements in reality television shows. His work is the fourth in a series of E-net profiles to showcase Elon undergraduate research during CELEBRATE! 2010.

Walton, an Atlanta native and strategic communications major, began work on his research while completing an internship with NBC Universal in New York City last summer. He monitored product placements in episodes of NBC's 2009 summer reality show, “The Great American Road Trip,” then spoke with the NBC personnel about how they negotiated the placements.

Alex Walton '10

He returned to campus in the fall and, along with mentor Barbara Miller, assistant professor of communications, conducted focus groups of students and community members to gauge their perceptions of product placements.

The result? Walton’s Honors thesis, which he presented earlier this month at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research and this week during Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum. He recently spoke with the Office of University Relations about his project and his findings.

Q: What is product placement?

A: Generally, people call any brand that appears in a television show or movie product placement. But practitioners define product placement as something more specific. The people I talked to and worked with at NBC define product placement as something that’s done by outside agencies, and they don’t really like it. It’s not money that’s paid to the network. Networks negotiate what they call brand or product integrations – producers of a TV show and representatives from a particular brand negotiate the terms. In the case study, I used in this project, the brand was Applebee’s.

Q: What did you find in your research?

A: My biggest finding was that, just as the practitioners distinguish between integrations and placements, audiences notice the difference, too. In the clips that I showed my focus groups, there was the Applebee’s integration that I talked about, and there were product placements for Shell gasoline and Southwest Airlines. People were able to distinguish between the two based on the characteristics of the presentation of the brands.

Q: Why does the distinction between product placement and product integration matter?

A: In this particular instance, the focus groups said the integration of Applebee’s was overdone and turned them off because it didn’t hold true to their past experiences with Applebee’s. In one episode, the families in the show went to an Applebee’s and the restaurant gave them a $100 gift card. Participants said, “Well, that’s never happened to me – I don’t get $100 from Applebee’s just for eating there.”

The Southwest and Shell placements were more subtle. One participant even said he wouldn’t have noticed them in the show if someone else hadn’t pointed them out. In this instance, the placements didn’t make them upset, but at the same time, they didn’t remember much about them compared to what they remembered about Applebee’s.

One of my conclusions was that product integrations, like the one for Applebee’s, can be effective, but they need to be truer to the audience’s sense of reality – especially if it’s a brand that they’re familiar with.

Q: What was something you enjoyed about pursuing this project?

A: The biggest thing that I got out of it was that I got time to really complete the project rather than being rushed to finish it in less than a semester for a class. I started kicking around ideas at the end of my sophomore year, so this is the completion of a very long process. Having that amount of time allowed me to look at something I was really interested in and that I could find some valuable information about.

Kristin Simonetti,
4/30/2010 8:14 AM