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NBC TV shows tell us to recycle, eat organic and exercise

You’ve heard of “product placement,” whereby companies pay to have their products displayed in the midst of movies or television programs. Well, now NBC Universal deploys “behavioral placement” in its TV shows, according to an interesting item in today’s Wall Street Journal.

It turns out that it is no accident when “Tina Fey is tossing a plastic bottle into the recycle bin, or that a minor character on Law and Order: SVU has switched to an energy-saving light-bulb.” It’s all part of NBC’s behavioral placement tactic, which “is designed to sway viewers to adopt actions they see modeled in their favorite shows. And it helps sell ads to marketers who want to associate their brands with a feel-good, socially-aware show.”

This effort is not just the occasional program here or there. The Journal reports that “Since fall 2007, network executives have been asking producers of almost every prime-time and daytime show to incorporate a green storyline at least once a year.” In addition, NBC has established “event” weeks in April and November, in which it provides green-themed programming for about 100 hours each week. In June, NBC plans a week that will "emphasize healthy eating and exercise".

“Executives say the more seemingly integrated the behavior is, the less it feels like the show is trying to manipulate,” writes the Journal. This is revealing: executives admit they are trying to manipulate us, they just hope it doesn’t “feel like" it, that is, that we don’t notice. It is also interesting to see what green topics they tend to avoid:

The messages NBC gravitates towards tend to be fairly innocuous. For instance, climate change may be controversial, but people can agree that taking care of the environment is a good thing. Same with diet and exercise: it may be controversial to ask people to quit smoking but people don’t argue with taking better care of your body.

That tells me that we should be more vigilant about messages about “taking care of the environment” and “taking better care of your body”, because these are readily accepted today as reasonable, even though they represent the same backward message about modifying our behavior as the more in-your-face arguments.  

Behavioral placement is troubling, but I wouldn’t go as far as calling it “mind control” – I have more faith in people to see through it. It’s also too soon to call this tactic a trend, given that the other major TV networks – ABC, CBS and Fox - do not use it.

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