Paying off the stars through advertisingWhen actor Yeon Jeong-hoon drove a new Audi A6 equipped with KTF’s global positioning system to the Hotel Shilla during a scene in the drama “Sad Love Story,” none of the brand-name posturing was unplanned.
Such advertisements in dramas as a marketing tool have existed for a long time, but product placement has become an indispensable part of Korean TV dramas due to increasing costs. Independent production companies produce most TV dramas while television stations finance the shows and retain the copyright.
But the problem is that production companies can’t finance the skyrocketing salaries of top stars for the shows. In case of the drama “Sad Love Story,” the production costs reached almost 180 million won ($180,000) per episode, and a large portion was paid to actors and actresses. The drama’s production company paid more than 20 million won each to Kwon Sang-woo and Kim Hee-sun per episode.
“It is impossible to cast top stars without product placement,” said Lim Hoi-joung, the president of Olive Communication & Production, a product placement marketing agency.
And the top stars are a decisive factor in a drama’s success. Product placement is taken into consideration at the initial stages when a script is created, Ms. Lim said.
First, the producers of the drama ponder what kinds of products would be suitable. Proposals go to prospective advertisers, and they compete for an advertising slot before they go into negotiations. Producers talk to scenario writers about what the advertisers want from the drama and where they want their products placed.
Although scripts are modified in consideration of product placement, “the outline of the scenarios remains unchanged,” said Lee Mee-jee of Kimjonghak Production, the producer of the drama “Sad Love Story.”
“Television commercials are too expensive and product placement as an indirect advertisement is relatively effective in terms of cost,” Ms. Lim said. “It is a win-win condition for both advertisers and producers.”
But not always. The drama about gambling and love, “All In,” featuring Lee Byung-hun and Song Hye-kyo, was a huge hit and shown in Japan, but the production company suffered a huge loss because it did not gain enough product placement support to recover its costs.
Kimjonghak Production, the producer of “Sad Love Story,” was lucky because it was able to win contracts with 25 advertisers due to the high-profile actors in the drama and the prospect that it would be shown in Japan, Ms. Lee said.
Hanryu, the Korean term for the uptick in the popularity of the country’s culture in Asia, was an important factor in the drama’s product placement bonanza. Fuji TV in Japan is airing the drama.
Tourism is another factor in product placement. After the huge success of “Winter Sonata” in Japan, Japanese tourists came to Korea in droves to see where it was filmed. Though the success was unexpected, the Korean tourist industry realized the potential that the drama’s success could create.
According to the Korea National Tourism Organization, the number of Japanese tourists increased 27 percent in the first three months of the year despite the diplomatic tensions following the controversy over the Dokdo Islands.
Hotel Shilla reportedly paid tens of millions of won and competed with other hotels to be included in the drama “Sad Love Story” because the drama would air in Japan, and it wanted to attract Japanese tourists, a Shilla hotel official said.
In return for financial assistance, Kimjonghak Production helped a small number of local travel agencies create and market a “Sad Love Story” tour package for Japanese travelers. Japanese tourists can visit the filming sites on Anmyeondo island in South Chungcheong province, Itaewon in Seoul and a U.S. Air Force base in Gunsan, Ms. Lee said.
Tourism was also taken into account for “Haesin,” a historical drama about Silla Dynasty’s general Jangbogo. Historical dramas are close to a taboo for independent production companies because of the difficulty for product placement.
However, the producer of the drama signed up perhaps the biggest sponsor in Korean drama history. Wando county and South Jeolla province spent 5 billion won for the KBS drama including the construction of the set.
Wando and other regions competed for sponsorship, and the investment in the drama has already handsomely paid off for Wando. According to Lee Ju-chan, a Wando County official, more than 1 million people paid a visit to the set since the drama began airing in January. This is almost a 10-fold increase in the number of tourists visiting the place compared with the same period last year. Wando county estimated the economic contribution to the region from tourism at 34 billion won.
Recently up to 15,000 visitors have been going there during the week and more on the weekends. The entrance fee revenue hit 150 million won for the last 20 days, but Mr. Lee said the indirect benefits are even larger. “Tourism can make considerable contributions to the local economy,” Mr. Lee said.
Auto importers have been major advertisers for TV dramas, and imported cars have routinely appeared in nearly all prime time dramas since actor Ahn Jae-wook drove a BMW in the 1998 drama “Star in My Heart.” The hit drama “Spring Day,” starring actress Ko Hyun-jung and actor Chi Jin-hee, featured BMWs and Mini Coopers while “Lovers in Paris” featured General Motor’s Statesman.
Other product placements are subtler but clever. In the recent drama “Super Rookie,” singer-actor Eric plays an office employee who came up with a new brand his company will launch. Absurdly, he proposes “Beauty Credit” which happens to be a product by Somang Cosmetics, an advertiser for the drama.
The drama eventually modified the name to “Happy Credit” for fear of a warning from the Korean Broadcasting Commission. Excessive advertising in dramas is subject to disciplinary action by the commission. Due to constant vigilance by the commission, production companies have a hard time walking a fine line not to provoke the commission.
And if advertisers are not satisfied with the exposure of the placement of the desired product in dramas, producers must pay a penalty.
“This happens all the time,” said Ms. Lim who did not specify how much of a penalty a producer would pay.
by Limb Jae-un