In just one week on NBC, the detectives on "Law and Order" investigated a cash-for-clunkers scam, a nurse on "Mercy" organized a group bike ride, Al Gore made a guest appearance on "30 Rock," and "The Office" turned Dwight Schrute into a cape-wearing superhero obsessed with recycling.
Coincidence? Hardly. NBC Universal planted these eco-friendly elements into scripted television shows to influence viewers and help sell ads.
The tactic—General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal calls it "behavior placement"—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.
Unlike with product placement, which can seem jarring to savvy viewers, the goal is that viewers won't really notice that Tina Fey is tossing a plastic bottle into the recycle bin, or that a minor character on "Law and Order: SVU" has switched to energy-saving light bulbs. "People don't want to be hit over the head with it," says NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. "Putting it in programing is what makes it resonate with viewers."
TV has always had the ability to get millions of people to mimic a beloved character. Ever since Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" stopped in at the Magnolia Bakery, fans of the show wait in long lines for the once-quiet shop's $2.75 cupcakes. When Jennifer Aniston as Rachel on "Friends" cut her hair, salons across the country reported requests for the shaggy, highlighted, layered look known as "the Rachel."
This is the power of persuasion that NBC hopes to tap.