How phones, cars and even cafes get starring roles in Korean dramas

Seoul (Agence France-Presse) - The export success of South Korea's television dramas has spawned a hard-selling world of branded entertainment that uses product placement to push everything from smartphones to lipsticks.

Korean firms spend millions of dollars ensuring lovers in popular soap operas confess their feelings via Samsung smartphones, kiss in Hyundai cars and move into a house equipped with a giant LG TV.

And companies looking for exposure pay to feature in shows as characters' workplaces.

The power of the most popular dramas to launch new trends and boost existing ones was displayed by My Love From The Star, an unlikely love story starring Gianna Jun as a top female movie star and Kim Soo Hyun as a 400-year-old alien professor.

In the SBS show - a huge hit especially in China - the characters talked and sent texts on Samsung's Galaxy Note smartphones and chatted via the Line mobile app made by Naver, Seoul's top Internet portal. Jun's character used lotions and lipsticks made by Amorepacific, South Korea's largest cosmetics firm. Other characters had an insatiable taste for mini-desserts made by CJ, the country's top food company.

The exposure clearly paid off. Amorepacific said sales of the skincare products and lipsticks used by Jun surged 75 per cent and 400 per cent respectively, largely thanks to booming sales in China. In the past, product placement on Korean TV shows "boosted domestic sales only", the company said in a statement. "But we've recently seen it having an immediate and widespread impact in Asia, especially in China."

Amorepacific's overseas sales grew 28 per cent last year, boosted by a 29 percent expansion in China, the firm's largest market abroad. More than 90 per cent of product placement deals on Korean soap operas involve domestic firms, but foreign companies are also being attracted by the lure of improved sales in a key regional market.

In My Love From The Star, a pair of US$625 (S$780) Jimmy Choo shoes worn by Jun sold out in shoe stores across Asia within days. Even more dramatically, it took only a rumour - the brand name never appeared - that the lipstick she used in one episode was from Yves St Laurent to cause a similar run on that product.

Neither Jimmy Choo nor YSL had struck a deal to have their products featured placed in the show. Mercedes-Benz did, and the German carmaker saw a spike in the sales of its models featured in the show. "Many companies now know if their products are featured in our shows, Asian viewers, especially women, will feel more familiar with their brands, whether on a conscious or unconscious level," said SBS executive producer Kim Yeong Seop.

While details of product placement deals are not disclosed, industry sources say exposure on popular shows costs at least 100 million won (S$122,310) and much more for a hit drama featuring A-list stars with a regional following. The biggest spender of all is Samsung - the world's largest technology firm by revenue - which sponsors around two-thirds of all domestically produced soap operas, according to Mr Kim Si Hyun, head of 153 Production, a major product placement agency in Seoul.

"It's a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics such as smartphones, computers, cameras, air-conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end," Mr Kim said.

Commodification of the dramas begins at the earliest stage of production, once a scriptwriter has produced a basic storyline listing characters and their professions. According to Mr Kim from 153 Production, the workplace of a lead character can go for between 500 million and 1 billion won. That was how Park Shin Hye's heroine in The Inheritors - a teenage romance that was a hit in Asia last year - ended up working at for Mango Six.

The Seoul-based cafe chain paid more than 500 million won to feature in the show as the workplace of the character, a poor teenager courted by two wealthy classmates who constantly sip Mango Six signature juices while waiting for her.

"We made sure that the most dramatic, romantic scenes - such as the two men professing their love for her or fighting over her - take place in our store, with our drinks on the table," Mr Kang Bong Joo, the firm's marketing manager, said.

The store in Seoul has become a major tourist attraction and Chinese branches of Mango Six in cities such as Shanghai draw customers wanting the same juices drunk by the two male leads, Lee Min Ho and Kim Woo Bin.

"It really helped our expansion plans in Asia," Mr Kang said. Not everyone is happy and Internet forums devoted to individual shows often carry complaints from viewers. One disgruntled fan wrote: "These days, I don't know if I'm watching a TV drama or a home shopping channel."

While product placement in some dramas is relatively unobtrusive, it can be glaring in others as a character wolfs down half a dozen branded doughnuts for no apparent reason. Mr Kim of SBS acknowledged that seamlessly squeezing dozens of products into an hour-long episode was a challenge, but insisted it was a "critical part" of the contemporary TV industry. With huge fees demanded by a limited pool of A-list actors, production costs have skyrocketed to the point where product placement is no longer just desirable but essential, he said. "We are aware of the potential for a viewer backlash ... and we try our best to keep a balance." Agence France-Presse

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