Subconscious shopping

Forget scouring store racks to find the latest trends — some companies are taking their business straight to the small screen.

Amid a changing media landscape in which anyone can use TiVo to fast-forward through commercials or watch entire episodes of their favorite programs online with minimal interruptions, many companies are makerting fashion to teens and college students through popular sitcoms and reality shows.

“With the proliferation of media today — not just the number of TV channels but forms of media in general — people have so many different ways to be entertained and to get information,” marketing professor Jill Solomon said. “Because of this, TV shows are reaching fewer customers, and advertisers are asking, ‘So, why should we continue paying for (commercials)?’ The answer is to put the products within the show, so you’re forced to look at them.”

Seconds after seeing Lauren Conrad wear a black racerback dress on episode 402 of The Hills — MTV’s popular reality TV show, which chronicles Conrad’s life as a Teen Vogue intern, budding fashion designer and, primarily, socialite — viewers can visit The Hills’ Web site and outfit themselves in the same frock. Or, if they can’t get enough of the fighting between former friends Heidi Montag and Conrad, they can buy T-shirts touting “Team Heidi” or “Team Lauren,” letting the world know where they stand on the issue.

“Viewers identify with these stars. They look up to them and want to be like them,” said Penelope Kerr, faculty member for fashion design and marketing at the International Academy of Design in Tampa, describing the appeal of such an advertising method. “A lot of the reality TV shows like The Hills close with a message for viewers to go online to catch the ‘after-show,’ where viewers can learn more about the show and feel more involved.”

Along with cast member interviews and live chats with fans about the episode, The Hills’ after-show Web site includes a link to a page that shows fans how to “get the look” of its main characters. Viewers can learn how to copy the stars’ style, from Conrad’s silver Hamsa necklace to Lauren Bosworth’s Dolce Vita black leather boots.

A disclaimer at the top of the Web site announces that the show’s stars don’t endorse the products featured on its pages, though many of the items are worn and designed by Conrad.

“It’s a smart idea, especially when the companies are selling clothes and facial products,” said Mymy Chau, a junior majoring in biomedical science. “I’d go to the site if I saw something big on a show that I liked, like a dress. I wouldn’t just go there to shop for a shirt or something.”

MTV also provides opportunities to steal the looks of its other shows’ stars, featuring pages for the now-defunct Laguna Beach, as well as shows such as Newport Harbor,  My Super Sweet 16 and The Real World: Hollywood.

To further encourage online shopping, the site features “Shopisodes,” where viewers can watch episodes of their favorite shows while a box to the right of the screen features a scrolling list of products that fit the style of the show.

This type of advertising can blur the lines between advertisement and entertainment, something Solomon said today’s college students are probably more accepting of than the preceding generation. When discussing the issue, she cited an episode of PBS’ Frontline, called “The Persuaders,” and said her generation likely identified more with the following quote:

“There’s no secret that the American public, and the public of every society on the face of the Earth, is willing to consume crap,” Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield said in the episode. “They consume crap, you know, from their cupboards and pantries, and they consume crap on television. But they’re very particular about which is which, and they don’t want to see them conflated. And they don’t want the purity of their tele-crap to be adulterated by merchandising of the fast food crap. And they will rebel.”

As the number of shows’ Web sites selling the clothes right off their stars’ backs increases it seems this mentality is changing.

In addition to MTV, the CW network has its own “style” section on its Web site where viewers can click on a variety of shows ranging from America’s Next Top Model, the Tyra Banks-produced reality show in which contestants compete for a modeling contract, to Supernatural, a science fiction show about two brothers who hunt for paranormal evils in America.

ABC Family offers a Web site with similar features. So do ABC, Bravo, CBS, E!, Spike, USA and a slew of others. That’s because these networks’ shopping sites are maintained by or otherwise affiliated with, which specializes in locating and selling celebrity-inspired merchandise.

About $4.38 billion was spent on product placement in 2007, and by 2010, that number is projected to spike up to $7 billion, according to PQ Media.

Though product placement has occurred for decades, having a section of a show’s Web site market the products found in TV shows is relatively new. One show, however, takes these tie-ins to the next level, by not only charging certain brands to be featured in episodes, but by partially creating the show as a way to market various fashions, The New York Times reported.

“We tried to launch trends from the get-go,” Gossip Girl costume designer Eric Daman told the Times.

Just because they’ve launched these services doesn’t mean that college-aged students will take advantage of them, however.

“I don’t know if I would ever do that, but I think it’d be good for all of those Disney shows,” said Shivanna Harridan, a junior majoring in international studies. “All of the tween girls would really go for it.”

Harridan said she’s OK with Web sites selling items found on TV shows, but draws the line when characters go out of their way to promote a product.

“The name-dropping (of products’ brands) is annoying,” she said. “It’s like ‘Big Brother’ is trying to tell you what to buy or something.”

Double vision

A variety of Web sites feature TV show fashions.

1. Gossip Girl queen bee Blair’s  (played by Leighton Meester) little white dress, inspired the Corey Lynn Calter Kera Ruffle Neck Mini Dress available on

2. Serena (Blake Lively), another character from Gossip Girl walks down the aisle of her mother’s wedding, while a model struts down the runway wearing a dress from the Ralph Lauren 2008 spring collection.

3. The racerback dress Lauren Conrad wore in the fourth season of The Hills is available at Saks Fifth Avenue.

4. Lauren Conrad accessorizes her sweater and jeans with a Rebecca Minkoff Matinee handbag in episode three of the new season of The Hills. The purse costs $625 and is available at