CONSUMERS, CHARACTERS, AND PRODUCTS: A Balance Model of Sitcom Product Placement Effects

By Russell, Cristel Antonia; Stern, Barbara B


This study examines the influence of product placements in television serial comedies on consumer attitudes toward the products. Proposing a “Balance Model of Sitcom Product Placement Effects,” the study integrates genre theory to analyze character- product associations in sitcoms, parasocial theory to consider consumer-character referential relations, and balance theory to address the main research issue of the way that characters’ relations to placed products and consumers’ relations to the characters affect consumers’ attitudes to the products. The model is based on balance theory, in which attitude alignment is the explanation for links between a triad composed of the consumer, the sitcom character, and the placed product. The influence of two consumer-character variables (attitude and parasocial attachment) and two character-product variables (valence and strength of association) are tested in a real-world situation. The methodology uses real televised sitcoms as stimuli, real viewers as respondents, and a real-time on-line survey to measure the relationship among the variables. Study findings support the predictions that consumers align their attitudes toward products with the characters’ attitudes to products and that this process is driven by the consumers’ attachment to the characters.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the influence of product placements in television serial comedies on consumer attitudes toward the products. The justification for investigating placements, defined as a marketing practice in which a firm pays for inclusion of its branded products in films and television programs (Balasubramanian 1994), is that they have become so ubiquitous that in 2005 they are expected to be used in 75% of prime-time network shows (Consoli 2004). The strategy has become part of the marketing mix of over 1,000 U.S. brands (Marshall and Ayers 1998), including large Fortune 100 companies, such as Procter & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Anheuser-Busch (Vranica 2004). With 41% of U.S. homes expected to be equipped with digital video recorders that allow consumers to skip through advertising messages by 2008, product placements threaten to eclipse traditional advertising messages (Piccalo 2004). The placement industry is now a $3.46 billion industry, with $1.88 billion spent on television placements alone in 2004 (PQ Media 2005).

The reason for an increase in placements is that they are associated with an increase in sales, which is especially notable when products appear in sitcoms, a program type that provides strong evidence of the strategy’s effectiveness across product categories. For example, in the apparel category, a 35% rise in sales of Nick & Nora pajamas occurred between 1995 and 1998 when Ally McBeal (the main character in the Ally McBeal show) wore them as lounging outfits (Carter 2000; Stanley 1998). Similarly, in the nonalcoholic beverage category, the 1990s growth in coffee bars such as Starbucks and New World Coffee has been attributed to their importance in urban sitcoms such as Frasier and Friends (Tueth 2000); in the alcoholic beverage category, the popularity of the Cosmopolitan martini is often linked to its popularity among the women in Sex and the City.

Even though the phenomenon of placements was only named and identified a decade ago (Balasubramanian 1994), advertising and consumer researchers have already begun to study its impact on memory (Babin and Carder 1996; Gupta and Lord 1998; Nelson 2002; Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004), attitudes (d’Astous and Seguin 1999; Russell 2002), and behavior (Auty and Lewis 2004; Russell and Puto 1999). Early studies of sitcoms focused primarily on a placed product’s connectedness to the plot, defined as events in a media vehicle (Russell 2002). Findings indicate that a product’s connection to the plot is a significant source of influence on viewers’ attention to and attitudes toward products (d’Astous and Seguin 1999; Russell 2002). More recent studies indicate that the degree of viewers’ parasocial relationships with the characters (Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004) is another significant source of influence, offering the notion of attachment to characters as an explanatory factor. However, there is still little research on the relationship between a placement’s role in a specific media vehicle and the process whereby it affects viewers’ attitudes toward the product. That is, neither the characters’ intraprogram relations to placed products nor the consumers’ extraprogram relations to the products have been fully examined.


Balance Model of Product Placement Effects

To enrich our understanding of the way that placements work, we propose investigating both relations in terms of the central role of sitcom characters, considered “the most crucial element” (Wolff 1988, p. 14) in the genre, itself called “character comedy” (Feuer 1992, p. 154). The characters function in a tripartite influence process in which stage one is the inside-program character-product relation, stage two is the outside-program consumer-character relation, and stage three is the interaction between inside and outside influences in the consumer-product attitude. From this perspective, the question of interest is, How do characters’ relations to placed products and consumers’ relations to the characters affect consumers’ attitudes to the products?

To address this question, we turn to multidisciplinary theory, using literary criticism as the source of information about characters and products in the sitcom genre, parasocial theory as the source of information about consumers and fictional characters, and balance theory as the source of information about the triadic relationship forming the “Balance Model of Sitcom Product Placement Effects.” Figure 1 depicts the balance between three components of the triadthe consumer, the character, and the product-and presents the theoretical roots underlying the character-product dyad and the consumer-character dyad that allow us to predict attitudinal effects for the third dyad: the consumer-product relation (i.e., the consumer’s attitude toward the placed product). The model extends prior research by integrating two key factors that affect consumers’ attitudes toward placed products, that is, the extent to which products are associated with the characters in the program (d’Astous and Seguin 1999; Russell 2002) and the relationships viewers have with the program characters (Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004). We begin with an overview of the theoretical foundation that underlies the model, turning first to genre theory, which provides information about the formal and structural attributes of sitcoms that determine the centrality of characters and products; next we address parasocial theory, which provides information about consumer- character relations; and last we examine balance theory, which offers the explanation of the interaction between both of the preceding theories and drives our hypotheses.


Genre Theory: Characters and Products

Genre theory is the branch of literary criticism aimed at classifying texts in accordance with attributes specific to one genre but not others (Fowler 1982). We draw from it to identify within-program characteristics of sitcoms, a species of comedie work in which the dramatic elements of character, plot, props, settings, and so forth form a unique pattern (Feuer 1992). Sitcoms are particularly genre-bound (Fiske 1987), for they are the “signature” program type (Feuer 1992) invented and mass-produced for television (Neale and Krutnik 1990). Mass production rests on formulaic construction, which enables the program to be created in conformance to conventions that dictate the deployment of dramatic elements (Cawelti 1970), including, for the first time, products as part of the pattern (Neale and Krutnik 1990). Production of cookiecutter programs allows for increased industry profits owing to low research and development costs, economies of scale, and high volume. Standardized entertainment programs also systematize the decoding of meanings and ensure that viewers “are influenced, even manipulated, by the genres they [the programs] are fitted into” (Fiske 1987, p. 111; cf. Feuer 1992). Standardization thus results in high profits for producers and ease of construction of meaning for audiences (Fiske 1987) presumed to possess genre knowledge by dint of long exposure to similar works.

Serialization of sitcoms also guides viewer expectations of potentially long relationships with characters, for longevity is a built-in feature that goes hand in hand with standardization in impacting both profitability and viewer-constructed meanings. Just as manufacturing efficiency is increased when the same product is produced year after year, so too are viewer perceptions of meaning reinforced by repeated viewing of ongoing dramas (Esslin 1976). Each episode in a serial contains the same characters, designed to be familiar, recognizable, and stereotypical. Sitcom popularity since the 1950s (starting with shows like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners) is attributed to the presentation o\f types of people whom viewers recognize and with whom they become familiar over time. Familiarity allows viewers to experience a “comforting feeling of security” in the presence of characters who behave predictably, for they are stereotypes or stock characters (Frye {1957} 1973) unlikely to behave in a threatening or disturbing fashion (Brown 1992). These comedic types are embedded in the sitcoms’ literary heritage, traceable to the Old Comedy of Athens (Levin 1987) traditionally populated by stock characters such as lechers, sluts, fools, and liars. The same types reappear in contemporary sitcoms: Joey in Friends is lecherous; Samantha in Sex and the City is promiscuous; Jack in Will and Grace is a fool; and George in Seinfeld is a liar. The formula also locates characters within a group-the focus of “ensemble playlets” (Brown 1992, p. 511) representing a lifestyle community held together by shared values such as friendship, emotional interdependency, loyalty, and, since the 1970s, liberalism (Eaton 1978/79). Most recently, domestic groups are composed of friends functioning as a surrogate family, a response to cultural changes in the nature of family composition that now include unmarried singles living together, gay partners, live-at-home adult children, and single-parent households, all of which appear in programs such as Sex and the City, Friends, and Will and Grace.

The presence of products is perhaps the most defining element of the lifestyle community, with products serving as significant objects in the consumption scenarios that pervade the genre. Prior research (Hirschman, Scott, and Wells 1998; Solomon and Greenberg 1993) on character-product associations indicates that products serve as “psychocultural” cues to the audience’s construction of meanings about characters and groups (Sherry 1995). The genre depends on a carefully drawn sociocultural scenario filled with characters interacting with products, and thus providing information about them. Insofar as sitcoms are “popular when their conventions bear a close relationship to the dominant ideology of the time” (Fiske 1987, p. 112), the prominence of consumption is reflected in the importance of products such as clothing, makeup, home furnishings, food, and beverages to the characters (Cornwell and Keillor 1996). Characters associated with products communicate meaning about consumption (Fiske 1987; Wolff 1988) to audiences accustomed to the generic sitcom pattern that routinely depicts an embedded consumption scenario (Hirschman, Scott, and Wells 1998; Solomon and Greenberg 1993). Thus, genre theory sheds light on character-product relationships specific to a media vehicle, with sitcoms containing stereotypical types in familiar settings replete with everyday products.

Our model takes into account the fact that sitcom characters’ attitudes toward products in situation comedies vary along two main dimensions: valence (from negative to positive) and association strength (from weak to strong). Sitcom characters’ statements about preferences vary in valence, for characters cannot automatically be assumed to be favorably inclined toward products seen and discussed (Butler 2001). That is, they may display positive or negative attitudes. In Will and Grace, for example, the main characters make fun of their boring friends who want to eat at Olive Garden, a mass- market chain restaurant (Chang and Roth 2000) instead of a more upscale innovative place. Similarly, in Fraster, Frasier (the main character) and his brother Niles, both affluent food and wine snobs, mock their father’s simple food preferences for beer, beef jerky, and surf ‘n” turf dinners (Chang and Roth 2000). In addition to valence, character-product associations vary in intensity, from weak to strong. Weak associations refer to products that are merely placed in a character’s home to enhance the realism of the set-a form of “reality engineering” that is more implicit than product use or discussion (Solomon and Englis 1994). Classic examples of backgrounding a product as something that is “just there” are abundant in Friends, where the characters’ apartments contained items ranging from Heineken beer to Barilla spaghetti sauce. In contrast, strong associations refer to products used more explicitly to convey ideological information about a character (Hirschman 1988) that enriches his or her depiction (Holbrook and Grayson 1986). In this situation, the product contributes to the character’s identity and/or strongly reflects a character’s values (Hirschman 1988) and the character-product association may be relatively strong (DeLorme and Reid 1999; Russell 2002). In the last season of Sex and the City, for instance, Miranda, a New York lawyer, was defined by her pregnancy and motherhood, and products related to that experience were strongly associated with this life transition and with her upperclass lifestyle, from the Bellini accessories and Kiehls baby lotions she purchased for the newborn to her Weight Watchers’ experience to shed baby weight. Both dimensions of valence and association strength are included in the model to characterize the character-product dyad (see Figure 1).

Parasocial Theory: Consumers and Characters

Examination of the consumer-character dyad draws from parasocial theory, which explains viewers’ inclinations to be attached to or distanced from fictional characters conceived of as real (Horton and Wohl 1956; Levy 1962). A tradition of research of viewer-character relationships in the television context spans the fields of communications (Fiske 1987; Jenkins 1992; von Feilitzen and Linne 1975), psychology (Horton and Wohl 1956; Maccoby and Wilson 1957), and marketing (Churchill and Moschis 1979; Kozinets 2001; Lavin 1995; McCracken 1986; Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004). This research informs the processes whereby attitudes and relationships develop between viewers and television characters. Following a single episode, viewers are likely to develop attitudes toward characters that reflect the overall attitude of the characters. Over the course of watching multiple episodes of a television series, however, viewers can become actively vested in the characters whose lives they closely follow and care about, and sometimes begin to interact with them as if they were real, in a parasocial way. Thus, long-term viewing is essential to the attachment process over time, a process in which viewers develop attitudes toward the characters, get to know them, experience feelings of intimacy with them, and engage in vicarious participation in their lives (Maccoby and Wilson 1957). The process resembles the developmental progression of “real” relationships (Kozinets 2001), during which communication with the other (Tulloch and Jenkins 1995) and understanding of him or her increases in tandem with familiarity.

Note that attitude and attachment are different constructs, with attitude referring to a viewer’s feelings of positive (negative) inclinations toward a character, and attachment referring to a viewer’s feelings of closeness (distance) to a character. Attachment emphasizes the strength of the interpersonal relationship, representing the degree to which the character is viewed as a meaningful referent other. This distinction is common in the psychology of interpersonal relations and social influence literature in which the concept of attachment is similar to Heider’s “similarity, proximity, common fate” (1958, p. 177), or French and Raven’s “feeling of oneness” (1959, p. 161), a trigger of normative influences flowing from an agent (the character) to a target (the consumer). Thus, our model (see Figure 1) integrates the two distinct dimensions of the consumer-character dyad: attitude (from negative to positive) and parasocial attachment (from weak to strong).

Parasocial relationships are expected to be especially important in situation comedies because of the genre’s attributes of serialization, standardization, and stereotypes (Newcomb and Hirsch 1983). The temporal longevity of sitcoms over a number of seasons (equivalent to years)-for example, Friends lasted for nine seasons, and Frasier for eleven-makes them especially suitable as loci of parasocial attachments in that viewers can get to know the characters and vicariously participate in their lives (Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004). Media researchers have identified the potential for television characters and celebrities to serve as behavioral models (McCracken 1986) and have found that referential influences occur via parasocial interactions (Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004). That is, the more consumers feel parasocially attached to television characters, the more these characters become referent others, resulting in their greater influence on viewers (Bandura 1976). In placement terms, as viewers become closer to characters, they tend to identify with them (von Feilitzen and Linn 1975; Levy 1962), accept them as models of correct product decisions, and even model personal consumption on characters’ product use (Russell and Puto 1999). Thus, based on the extant parasocial theory literature, parasocial attachment is expected to play an important role in the influence viewers receive from sitcom characters.

Balance Theory: Consumers, Characters, and Products

To construct the model depicted in Figure 1 and address the research question-“What are the interactive effects of characters’ relations to products and consumers’ relations with characters on consumers’ attitudes to products?”-we draw from Heider’s balance theory in social psychology (1946, 1958). Balance theory explains an individual’s desire to maintain consistency among a triad of linked attitudes. The premise is that when an individual perceives a set of elements as linked, the perceiver (person 1) strives for balance in his or her attitude toward another person (person 2) and with an object associated with person 2 (Osgood andTannenbaum 1955). In this situation, person 1 will align his or her attitude toward the object with that of person 2 such that cognitive consistency is achieved. When the theory was applied to celebrity endorsers in advertisements, person 1 = a consumer; person 2 = a celebrity; and the object = an endorsed product. Thus, if a consumer likes a celebrity and a celebrity likes a product, then the consumer will also like the product. We adapt the theory to product placements by reconceiving the elements such that person 1 remains the consumer, but person 2 = fictional sitcom character, and an object = a product associated with the character. The adaptation underlies our proposal that consumers will be inclined to achieve balance by aligning their feelings toward the character with the character’s attitude to a product. The attitude alignment process is facilitated by the consumer-character relationships and affected by the nature of the character-product relationship.

We integrate into our balance model both the notion of attitude valence (liking/disliking) and that of association (strength/ weakness) between components of the triad. The distinction between valence and association strength was present in Heider’s original articulation of the theory (1958) and later in Osgood and Tannenbaum’s extension of the theory (1955), with attitude valence referring to a person’s degree of positive or negative evaluation of something or someone distinct from association, referring to the strength of connection between a person and another person or object. Recent research suggests that person Is attitude alignment with that of person 2 is especially strong if the attitude object is central to person 2 and if the relationship between persons 1 and 2 is strong (Davis and Rusbult 2001). Analogously, in the context of placements, the consumer’s attitude toward the product will be a function not only of the valence of the character’s attitude toward the product and consumer-character relationships but also of their respective levels or strengths.


Our hypotheses specify the linkages between consumer-character variables (attitude and parasocial attachment) and character- product variables (valence and strength of association). Per Heider’s balance theory, attitudes toward the placed product will be a function of all four variables: consumers will align their attitude toward the product (ConsAttProd) with attitude toward the character (ConsAttChar) and parasocial attachment with the character (ConsParaChar) based on the valence of the character’s attitude toward the product (CharAttProd) and the strength of the character association with the product (CharAssocProd).

Heider’s balance theory and its extensions stipulate that people prefer balanced triadic attitudinal structures. This theory has direct consequences on predicting the evaluation of products associated with a character in a program. In the context of our proposed consumer-character-product triad, balance exists when all three relations among elements are positive, or when two relations are negative and one is positive. When consumers are exposed to a product placement associated with a character, their drive to establish attitudinal balance implies that their evaluation of the placed product will be directly affected by the dimensions of the relationship they have with the character (attitude and attachment) and the dimensions of the relationship that exists between the character and the product (attitude and association).

Hypotheses Ia and Ib follow from Heider’s balance theory to predict that if the character’s attitude toward the product is positive (CharAttProd > O), a balanced interattitudinal state will occur in which ConsAttProd will be positively related to ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar. Conversely, if the character’s attitude toward the product is negative (CharAttProd

H1a: If CharAttProd > O, ConsAttProd is positively related to ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar.

H1b: If CharAttProd

Hypothesis 2 treats character-product associations, which vary not only in valence but also in strength. Existing research has shown that the strength of the association affects the need for attitude alignment such that a stronger relation will result in a greater need for attitudinal balance and thus greater alignment (Davis and Rusbult 2001). Therefore, H2 predicts that the strength of the character-product association (CharAssocProd) will moderate the relationship between ConsAttProd and the character variables ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar.

H2: The effects of ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar on ConsAttProd are moderated by CharAssocProd.

Hypothesis 3 predicts that the consumer-character variables- attitude and parasocial attachment-will affect consumers’ attitudes toward products to differing degrees. Indeed, the extant literature suggests that attachment, which captures the television character’s influence as a referent other, and thus his or her referent power (French and Raven 1959), will be more predictive of normative influences on viewers than mere liking of the character (Bandura 1976). As viewers interact with television characters parasocially and develop attachments to them, the characters become referent others comparable to real-life others able to influence viewers’ norms, attitudes, motivations, and behaviors (Churchill and Moschis 1979; Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004). The stronger the attachment, the more committed a viewer is to reexperience the emotional reward of relationships with characters and the cognitive reward of increased information about what the characters are up to this time (Pfister 1991, p. 99). Research on attitude alignment also supports this prediction, as data showed that the stronger the relationships between two individuals, the greater the tendency to modify one’s attitude to match the other person’s (Davis and Rusbult 2001; Newcomb 1959). We thus expect that parasocial attachment levels (ConsParaChar) will be better predictors of attitudinal balance, and thus ConsAttProd, than the more general attitude of the character (ConsAttChar).

H3: ConsParaChar will have a stronger effect on ConsAttProd than ConsAttChar.


To maximize external validity, the model was tested in a “live” study using actual episodes of situation comedies as stimuli. The stimuli were actual sitcom episodes-the season premieres of Will and Grace, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Frasier-watched in real- time by “real” viewers (see program descriptions in Appendix 1). A professional on-line survey Web site ( was used to program the research instrument and collect the data.


Recruitment of the sample was conducted in several waves via e- mail, and participants were screened on their television viewing habits so that only respondents who were regular viewers of at least one series and could watch a particular episode live were selected. In the selection process, potential respondents were asked if they were willing to watch the season’s finale episode of the series, and later on that evening log on to a secure site to complete a questionnaire about their viewing experience. After watching the episode, selected participants received an e-mail message with the link to the survey Web site. The time when each respondent logged on and the amount of time it took to complete the self-paced questionnaire were recorded. These recruitment procedures had been pretested on a small sample of student viewers to ensure the soundness of this novel methodology. In the pretest, the recruiting methodology achieved a 70% response rate, and the data supported using real programs as stimuli, real viewers as respondents, and same-day recall.

A national sample of viewers was recruited in three waves of e- mails using a multistep permission-based process (Tezinde, Smith, and Murphy 2002). First, e-mail contact was initiated with 45,833 U.S. consumers listed in a purchased national database, and the consumers were asked to participate in a general survey on television viewing. This survey was used to screen participants. Among those who responded to the first survey (n = 10,329), those who indicated that they regularly watched one of the four sitcoms (n = 1,628) were contacted and invited to participate in the study. During the selection process, the respondents were told that they would have to watch the first episode of a series, and then later on that evening log on to a secure Web site to complete a questionnaire about their viewing experience. A total of 690 respondents agreed to participate, and the same professional on-line survey Web site was used to program the survey, record the time when each respondent logged on, record the amount of time it took to complete the self- paced questionnaire, and collect the data. A total of 261 respondents completed the questionnaire within two hours of the episode’s end (n ^sub Everybody Loves Raymond^ = 76, n^sub Frasier^ = 32, n^sub Will and Grace^ = 33, and n^sub friends^ = 123). This represents a 37.8% response rate from the group of agreed participants in the study (or 16% of the original group contacted), a rate considered high for a Web-based study (Bachmann, Elfrink, and Vazzana 1999). Respondents’ ages ranged from 16 to 84, and the majority were female (79.5%). Nonresponse bias was addressed by comparing the demographics of participants in the final study to those of individuals contacted at each phase of recruitment. No substantial differences emerged between participants and nonparticipants in terms of gender and age distribution or education levels.

Research Instrument

The questionnaire included three parts. Part 1 contained a three- item semantic differential measure of the respondents’ at\titude toward the series, with each item consisting of a sevenpoint attitude toward the show measure (I like it/I dislike it, good/bad, unpleasant/pleasant). The television connectedness scale, a 16-item multifactor instrument, was also administered to measure the intensity of the relationship between the respondent and the program and its characters (Russell, Norman, and Heckler 2004).

After the respondents completed Part 1, Part 2 began with an explanation that “in the show, sometimes people are seen interacting with certain products or services (eating certain foods, drinking certain things, using certain modes of transportation, traveling to certain places, shopping at certain places, consuming certain forms of entertainment, using certain types of services, etc).” In Part 2, the respondents were asked to remember up to five instances of similar consumption-related events, and for each instance they were asked to type in the product or service and complete three, seven- point attitude items about the consumption event (ConsAttProd: I liked it/I disliked it, good/bad, unpleasant/pleasant). Then they were asked to fill in open-ended comments about why they thought the product was there, what they thought it contributed to the show, and which character(s) it was most closely associated with and why. An additional three-item scale measured the strength of the character- product association (CharAssocProd: The [product] was strongly associated with this character; the character interacted with [the product]; the character expressed like/dislike for [the product]). Finally, the respondent indicated the valence of the character’s attitude toward the product (CharAttProd: The association between [the product] and the character was positive/negative). The procedure was repeated for each instance mentioned.

Part 3 contained scales measuring responses to the characters the respondents had listed. The first scale was a threeitem seven-point attitude to the character measure (ConsAttChar: Ilike him or her/I dislike him or her, she/he is good/bad, she/he is pleasant/ unpleasant), and the second was the nine-item parasocial attachment scale (ConsParaChar; Rubin, Perse, and Powell 1985; see Appendix 2). The scales were followed by an open-ended question asking the respondent to describe the character in as much detail as possible (What is she/he like? What does she/he enjoy, and so forth). The procedure was repeated for each character listed in Part 2. At the end of Part 3, demographic information was collected.

Data Analysis

Overview of Data

Attitudes toward each episode (mean on all three attitude items, α = .94) were strongly positive and did not significantly differ by series, M^sub Raymond^ = 6.81, M^sub Frasier^ = 6.73, M^sub Friends^ = 6.78, and M^sub Will and Grace^ = 6.84, F(3, 257) = .252, p > .05. The connectedness levels (mean on all 16 items, α = .89) did not significantly differ either, M^sub Raymond^ =3.10. M^sub Frasier^ = 3.02, M^sub Friends^ = 3.26, and M^sub Will and Grace^ = 3.02, F(3, 260) = 3.197, p = .02. On average, respondents listed 2.97 (SD = 1.64) products or services, with the number of products significantly lower for Friends (M = 2.52) than for the other programs, M^sub Raymond^ = 3.22, M^sub Frasjer^ = 3.69, and M^sub Will and Grace^ = 3.40; F(3, 250) = 6.497,p


Character-Product Associations by Program

To take into account the differing number of products listed by each respondent, the analyses used only data from the first product listed by each respondent and only those products mentioned by at least 10% of the respondents. These first-listed products and the characters associated with them (n = 226) are depicted in Table 2.

Across all products listed, character-product relations varied in both valence and association strength. Association strength (CharAssocProd; mean across the three items, α = .84) varied from 1.0 to 5.0, with a grand mean of 3.84. The valence (CharAttProd) also reflected variance in characters’ attitudes toward products, with a grand mean of 3.88. Because the valence variable was a Likert scale from negative to positive, the observations were divided based on the midscale point: for the first product listed, 31.8 % of the ratings for first-listed products were at or below the mid-scale point, and across the total of 914 products listed, 36.9% were at or below the mid-scale point.

Consumers’ attitudes toward individual characters (ConsAttChar) were generally positive (grand mean on all three attitude items = 6.43, on seven-point scale, α = .92) and did not differ significantly by series, F(3, 237) = 1.396, p > .05. With an overall mean of 3.68, reported levels of parasocial attachment with each character (ConsParaChar; five-point scale, α = .89) varied from weak (1.00) to strong (5.00), and were not significantly different by program, F(3,239) = .464, p > .05. To demonstrate that the attitude and parasocial attachment constructs are distinct, we computed the correlation coefficient between ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar, which was .221 (p

Model Testing

To test the model, we conducted a series of regressions of ConsAttProd as the dependent variable on the different predictor variables. Hypotheses Ia and Ib predict that in a state of balance, ConsAttChar and ConsParaChar will be positively associated with ConsAttProd if the character’s attitude toward the product (CharAttProd) is positive (H1a), and negatively associated with ConsAttProd if the character’s attitude toward the product (CharAttProd) is negative (HIb). Hypothesis 2 predicts that the strength of the character-product association (CharAssocProd) will moderate these effects.

Insofar as the hypotheses predict different effects depending on the valence of the character’s attitude toward the product, separate regression analyses were conducted on the dataset split between the negative (n = 90) and the positive (n = 135) character’s attitudes. For each dataset, a first regression was conducted, including simple main effects only (attitude toward the character [ConsAttChar] and parasocial attachment with the character [ConsParaChar}). The second regression model included these main effects as well as the two-way interaction terms with the dichotomized association strength variable (ConsAttChar CharAssocProd and ConsPara Char CharAssocProd) to test H2. The association variable was operationalized as weak (CharAssocProd = O) or strong (CharAssocProd =1) based on the mean on the three-item character-product association measure.

The regression results appear in Table 3. Together, these regression analyses show that parasocial attachment affects consumers’ attitudes toward products, but that the effects differ depending on both the strength and valence of the product-character associations, lending support to our hypotheses. As predicted by H3, parasocial attachment is the only character variable that consistently affects consumers’ attitudes to placed products. Specifically, the results for positive character-product associations show that parasocial attachment is positively related to attitude toward the placed product (supporting HIa) regardless of the strength of the character-product association (no moderating effect of CharAssocProd). The results for negative character- product associations show that parasocial attachment is negatively related to attitude toward the placed product (supporting H1b), but only when the association is strong (moderating effect of CharAssocProd, partial support for H2).


Products Selected for Analysis


Parameter Estimates for Regression Models


The findings support the model’s depiction of parasocial attachment between consumers and sitcom characters. When the character’s attitude toward the product is negative, ConsParaChar significantly affects ConsAttProd if the character-product association is strong-that is, if consumers perceive a strong connection between the character and the product, then ConsParaChar affects ConsAttProd negatively. When the character’s attitude toward the product is positive, ConsParaChar affects ConsAttProd regardless of the strength of the character-product association-that is, if consumers perceive a positive connection between the character and the product, then ConsParaChar affects ConsAttProd positively. Consistent with H3, parasocial attachment was a stronger predictor of attitude toward the product than attitude toward the character. The only significant effect of ConsAttChar on ConsAttProd was found for strong negative character-product associations.

The study findings reveal support for the model of integrated influences from television referent others, and the genre implications of character-product associations. In accordance with the proposed balance model of product placement effects, consumers align their attitudes toward products with the inside-program characters’ attitudes to products, and this alignment process is driven by the consumers’ extraprogram attachment to the characters. In this way, the model contributes to a richer understanding of product placement effects, describing the importance of a character’s effect on viewers’ attitudes toward placed products, particularly when characters’ attitudes toward products are positive. However, when characters’ attitudes toward products are negative, characters influence viewer attitudes only if they are strongly associated with the product. Support is also found for the superior pre- ‘ dictive ability of parasocial attachment over attitude toward a character.

By integrating the infl\uence of viewers’ parasocial attachment to television characters and that of genre attributes on product- character associations, the balance model contributes to a richer understanding of product placement effects. Findings support the balance model of an attitude alignment process in which a consumer’s attitude toward the product is a function of the valence and strength of the character-product association in the program and the valence and strength of the consumer-character attachment. This study represents the first attempt at integrating balance theory into the study of product placement effects, and provides support for plot connection (Russell 2002) and character-product associations (Chang and Roth 2000) as important predictors of placement effects; it also provides support for the crucial role of consumer-character attachment in the attitude alignment process. Balance theory predictions previously tested in real-life interpersonal relationships (Davis and Rusbult 2001) also hold in a media context, proving that television characters with whom consumers experience a strong parasocial relationship can also contribute to the formation and change of consumers’ attitudes toward consumption. In addition, the study corroborates previous researchers’ reports of the abundance of consumption information in sitcoms (Fiske 1987; WoIfF 1988).


The present study has the general methodological limitation typical of prior placement research, which is characterized by a necessary compromise between internal and external validity (Campbell and Stanley 1966). We chose to “confront rather than evade external validity” (Wells 2001, p. 496) in two ways. First, we selected a methodology that allows for collection of real-world data from nonstudent samples; and second, we used real television programs to gain the benefits of externally valid stimuli and naturalistic settings. Consequently, the methodology contributes to product placement research by overcoming the limitations on external validity found in recent controlled experiments (Russell 2002). In so doing, however, we forewent the experimental manipulation of internal elements such as different levels of association between characters in a made-for-research stimulus, which would have enabled us to control the stimulus and placement effects (Babin and Carder 1996), the inclusion of more branded products as opposed to generic ones, or the collection of premeasures of consumer attitudes, which would allow assessment of attitude change (Russell 2002).

In addition, the study’s focus on one genre in one medium and one culture gives rise to the limitation of lack of generalizability across other program genres, media, and cultures. That is, even though the study provides support for the influence of characters and character-product associations on attitudes to placed products in American television sitcoms, we do not claim that its findings apply across other formats such as soap operas or crime dramas, other media such as books or music videos, or media vehicles popular in other cultures or subcultures.

Future Research

Nonetheless, the generalizability issue can be looked at as an opportunity for future researchers to extend product placement research to other media contexts (Esslin 1976) in which product- character associations and parasocial relationships occur. Among the many contexts are placements in books (e.g., Fay Weldon’s The Bulgari Connection and Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada); hip-hop music videos and songs (e.g., Busta Rhymes’ songs “Pass the Courvoisier” and “Pass the Courvoisier 2,” and Ludicris’s “Southern Hospitality,” which mentions Cadillac repeatedly); on-line video games (e.g., The Sims Online); and Broadway shows (e.g., Baz Luhrmann’s La Bohme). Precisely because placement research is so new, unexamined media vehicles provide fertile ground for the study of the nature and function of placements in one rather than another medium, such that greater understanding of specific media-related consumer effects can be achieved. For example, future research issues include the purpose of media placements in context, the means whereby they are introduced into the vehicle, the consumer- character relationship, and the anticipated attitude changes (Hirschman and Thompson 1997).

Just as the media contexts require future research, so too do the program genres within a single medium, notably television. Here, even though the history of placements in sitcoms, soap operas, and game shows is as long as that of television itself (Lavin 1995), new program types such as mob dramas (e.g., The Sopranos) and reality shows (e.g., Joe Millionaire, American Idol) tend to crop up with increasing rapidity. Indeed, the burgeoning of reality shows has been considered the fuel that powers “the apotheosis of recent product placements” (Carter 2001, p. Al), with such shows occupying 15 of the 18 half-hour time periods on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, and half of the slots on other nights in 2003 (as projected in Carter 2003). Careful study of the reality shows’ particular attributes is needed, for they differ fundamentally from any other television program genre. Unlike other television serials that are scripted and populated by professional actors playing the characters, reality shows are unscripted and populated by real people playing themselves in artificial situations that represent “mutations made possible by reality TV” (Thompson 2001, p. 23). Furthermore, the participants appear for only a limited time period (8 to 10 weeks) and then vanish completely. These special characteristics are likely to affect parasocial relationships, but until further research is conducted, little is known about placement effects in this new genre.

Similarly, the ethnicity of respondents in American subcultures and other cultures is well worth investigating (Gould, Gupta, and Grabner-Krauter 2000). Spanish-language television in the United States features sponsor-owned shows in which the product is central to the characters and plot, comparable to products in radio soaps (Lavin 1995). For example, Budweiser sponsors Kiosko Budweiser, a sitcom made for Puerto Rican television in which a Bud kiosk functions much as the Cheers bar did (Hundley 1995). The kiosk is the central meeting place for the characters (Davila 1998), and Budweiser placements on the kiosk are a permanent part of the set. Placement effects cannot be extrapolated from general American audience responses, however, for a survey of Puerto Rican viewers revealed that most tended to “dismiss {the company’s} involvement in the ptogtam on the grounds that real kiosks [are] always decorated with beer advertisements” (Davila 1998, p. 463). The likelihood of ethnic response differences in terms of program language, viewer race, and country of origin suggests that the study of other racial and ethnic groups is necessary to ascertain the effects of placements in different cultural environments.


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Barbara B. Stern (Ph.D., City University of New York) is a professor of marketing, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

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Series and Episode Analyses

Raymond-Series description


The Barone family

Robert Ray’s brother, a policeman, lives with his parents.

Ray Robert’s brother, a sportswriter for Newsday (Long Island daily paper).

Debra Ray’s wife, housewife; she and Ray live across the street from Marie and Frank. They have three children-AIi is six or seven, twin boys are three.

Marie Ray and Robert’s mother.

Frank Ray and Robert’s father.

Setting Long Island suburbs.

Situation The group is the Barone family, middle-class Italian, where men work and women stay at home. Conflict between Debra, who is a terrible housekeeper and cook, and Marie, who is a critical mother-in-law.

Episode description: “The Cult”

Ray is eating PICKLES, and talking to Debra about them, as they are eating dinner and drinking GINGER ALE. Robert, who is depressed and eating TUMS in bed, gets up and goes across the street to visit Ray and Debra. He enters wearing a HAWAIIAN SHIRT, and says that he is distraught about an ongoing feud between Marie and Debra, and that he has decided to join a support group called “Inner Path” for therapy that will enable him to achieve inner peace. The family thinks that it is a cult, but Ray accepts Robert’s invitation to go to the next meeting. Ray disapproves of the group, but says that he is depressed by the unending feud between Marie and Debra. Ray wants to get Robert away from the group, and Robert’s partner, Judy, suggests an intervention. Robert is invited to come over to Ray’s house for some CAKE, and the whole family is there. Robert tries to resist their intervention, but the family tries to express their feelings about Robert: Ray expresses his love for Robert; Marie wants to feed everyone some CAKE; and Frank calls Robert a “lughead” for not understanding how his father feels. Debra and Marie are so worried about Robert that they decide to make up. Afterward, Robert says that he and Ray planned the support group “therapy” to get Marie and Debra to make up.

Episode description: “Counseling”

The second episode is also based on therapy, but this time for Debra and Ray. It begins with an argument when she asks him to help her clean the house before a dinner party, and he refuses to help because he “spent the whole day with the kids” and wants to relax. He is watching TELEVISION, eating CHIPS and drinking GINGER ALE, while Debra is trying to VACUUM up the crumbs; she eventua\lly vacuums up the remote. At the dinner party, their friends talk about the help they’ve gotten from their therapist, Pamela, who has enabled them to discover the root of their arguments. Debra is fascinated, but Ray is not, and that night, they have an argument about starting therapy. Debra wins, and they make an appointment with Pamela. At the therapy session, Debra cries, explaining that she works hard at home and feels “unappreciated”; Ray’s strategy is to agree with Debra, admitting that he’s been selfish and calling her a “saint” for putting up with him. Pamela applauds his honesty, and Debra is furious because Ray tried to manipulate Pamela. When they return home, his parents are there, and they all discuss his failure to help Debra clean the house. Frank tells Ray to help out a little, and Marie says that Debra needs all the help she can get because she is a terrible housekeeper. Ray admits that he really wants to be taken care of, and agrees that he would rather have a mother than a wife. At this, Robert laughs; Marie smiles. When Robert comes over the next day to apologize for laughing at Ray, he brings a gift: a life-size cardboard figure of Marie in her wedding dress.

Note: The season premiere of Everybody Loves Raymond consisted of two back-to-back episodes.

Frasier-Series description


Frasier Niles’s brother, psychiatrist, host of a radio talk show, snob.

Niles Frasier’s brother, psychiatrist, divorced, also a snob. ‘

Martin Niles and Frasier’s father, ex-cop, disabled (walks with a cane), dislikes his sons’ snobbery.

Daphne Martin’s caretaker, a physical therapist. Martin and Daphne live with Frasier.

Roz The producer of Frasier’s radio talk show, and a personal friend of Frasier and Daphne.

Setting Seattle, Frasier’s apartment-very deluxe, with a view of Seattle, expensive art and furniture, full wine rack.

Situation Family group-Niles and Frasier are brother psychiatrists, whose snobbishness irritates their father, Martin, an ex-policeman. Daphne is Martin’s physical therapist, and they both live with Frasier.

Episode description: “The Ring Cycle”

The episode is about Niles and Daphne’s three successive weddings, complete with complications. The first takes place in Reno at the Lucky 7 chapel, where Niles has forgotten to buy a WEDDING RING. Roz, the producer of Frasier’s show, calls and Niles’s CELL PHONE rings; Niles and Daphne then realize that they can’t say that they eloped because Frasier would be hurt at not being invited. They decide to get married again the next day at City Hall; en route to the wedding, Frasier investigates Martin’s lunch bag (prepared in Daphne’s absence) and finds CHIPS and PUDDING CUPS. When Daphne’s mother gets to City Hall, she says that no daughter of hers can get married without a minister, and she walks out. But the newlyweds get married again, and Daphne’s mother comes to Frasier’s apartment to apologize for demanding that a minister be present. Frasier brings in a bottle of WINE, and Niles and Daphne tell her that they will go back to City Hall to get married again (wedding number 3). ‘ j

Friends-Series description

Characters In their late 20s/early 30s, white.

Joey Actor in Days of Our Lives (soap opera), Italian, a womanizer.

Monica Ross’s sister, wealthy background, Jewish, married to Chandler, works as a chef, is food-obsessed, neurotic, and controlling.

Phoebe Massage therapist, New Age hippie, nurturing, loves animals.

Rachel Monica’s high-school best friend, works at Ralph Lauren, on and off romance with Ross, has just had his baby.

Ross Monica’s brother, wealthy background, Jewish, works as a paleontologist, university professor, married three times, one child.

Chandler Married to Monica, works at unknown job in finance, Ross’s college roommate.

Setting All the characters live in New York-the West village-and hang out at “Central Perk,” an upscale coffee house.

Situation A “pack of pals” show, comparable to Cheers, in which six close friends get together at each others’ apartments or at Central Perk to discuss jobs, relationships, clothing, and other issues.

Episode description: “The One Where No One Proposes”

“Who-proposed-exactly-what-to-Rachel” showdown. All of the friends gather in Rachel’s hospital room, which is filled with BALLOONS and FLOWERS, to celebrate her giving birth to Ross’s baby. Joey, who is now in love with Rachel, finds an ENGAGEMENT RING that has fallen out of Ross’s coat. When he bends down to retrieve it, Rachel thinks that he is proposing to her, and she accepts. Joey realizes that Ross was about to propose, and Phoebe leaves the room to get her GAME BOY back from a child to whom she lent it. Monica and Chandler come to visit next, and since they are trying to have a baby, when she announces that she is ovulating they duck into a closet to have sex, unfortunately interrupted by Mr. Geller (Rachel’s father), who gives them advice on the best positions for conceiving. Back in Rachel’s room, Phoebe congratulates Ross on his engagement, and Ross, who is eating a SANDWICH outside, is confused; he mentions that Joey ate a piece of PLASTIC FRUIT earlier. When Ross returns to Rachel’s room, he thinks that Rachel is hallucinating until Phoebe points out her RING. Joey explains that he didn’t propose; he tells Rachel that the ring is Ross’s. Ross explains that he was not going to propose- he was carrying the ring because his mother had just given it to him. However, he tells Rachel that he wants to start dating again.

Will and Grace-Series description

Characters Thirty-something, white.

Will Gay lawyer, has two-bedroom apartment (Lincoln Towers on the Upper West Side-155 West End Avenue), not currently in a relationship.

Grace Jewish, lives with Will, single interior designer who dated Will at Columbia,

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