Product placement as a cultural hijacking

August 25, 2003

In 1982 Reese’s Pieces bought a cameo role as E.T.’s favorite snack, and sales of the candy soared 65 percent — to the chagrin of Mars Inc., which turned down the chance to feature M&M’s in what became a worldwide hit.

Ever since, product placement has thrived as an offshoot of the vast American marketing machine. BusinessWeek’s hall of fame includes Budget Rent-a-Truck in 1990’s Home Alone, Ray-Ban sunglasses in the Men in Black movies, and Red Stripe beer’s appearance in The Firm in 1993, which pushed sales 50 percent (and purportedly helped the brewery sell itself to Guinness within weeks.)

The field sometimes lapses into near-parody, as with the James Bond movies. Producers dumped 007’s traditional preferences — notably the Aston-Martin he drove and the Smirnoff vodka he drank — in favor of BMW and Finlandia, and rented his wrist to Omega, his face to Norelco and his billfold to Visa. (You have to wonder who handles collections from the cardholder with a license to kill.)

Now, product placement seems heading for a much wider role among the persuasive tools marketers rely on to get us to buy things we didn’t know we wanted. Technology is both pushing and pulling that change.

Pushing marketers toward plugging more things on the sly is the growth of personal video recorder (PVR) technology, such as TiVo, which enables even minimally skilled consumers to skip commercials. Advertisers fret that PVRs will shrink the audiences for traditional TV ads — worth $94 billion a year.

TiVo has been slow to take off, with only 700,000 subscribers, but widespread adoption is considered inevitable. An Advertising Age survey found that 63 percent of TiVo users skip commercials consistently.

Hence, marketing people are seeking alternative forms of branded content — ways to implant buy-messages painlessly. Examples: “The Hire,” the short films that BMW distributed last year, and episodic vignettes with enough of a dramatic hook to keep viewers around during program breaks.

And they’re having a hard look at more aggressively embedding their products right in the programs themselves — preferably in the hands of stars.

That’s where technology is providing a pull: Marketers no longer have to put that Pepsi on the car dashboard when the program is filmed. It can be inserted electronically later, and no one’s the wiser.

Virtual placement technology goes way beyond the first-down lines — some with brand-names superimposed — that football fans have been getting on TV since 1999. If a program exists in digital form, as nearly all now do, you can insert what you like when you like. In UPN’s series Seven Days, a Wells Fargo bank sign, designer shopping bags and Coke cans were added post-production.

As programs head into syndication, placements can be sold and resold. “A broadcaster can show a Seinfeld rerun with a box of corn flakes on Jerry’s kitchen table one time and a box of Special K the next time the show aired,” PVI Inc., an industry leader in electronic insertions, says on its web site.

If Seven-Up wants its soda where Pepsi stood when a program debuted, that’s a new sale. If the program is being shown overseas, a foreign product can be inserted. Vintage programs can get the old-fashioned packages used when the shows were filmed. (And as Loyola Marymount communications professor Lawrence Wenner writes in a disquieting article in Media Ethics, once your TV set becomes interactive you’ll click on the product and link to its home page — or even place your order.)

So is anything wrong with this?

Plainly it’s distasteful to turn a TV show into a tattoo parlor, in the words of Patti Ganguzza, who’s credited with getting Post’s Honeycomb cereal onto the Sopranos’ kitchen table.

But the real issue is just how much of popular culture is literally for sale. Product placement may seem at worst a bit sneaky; in fact it’s nothing less than auctioning off components of our culture’s creative language.

An author has a character driving this car and drinking that beer because those choices signify something. They are part of the vocabulary with which the character is portrayed. They connote pretensions, aspirations and vanities. They give the character texture and nuance. Bond’s Aston was an expression of his Englishness; he drank Smirnoff because it was a pre-revolutionary Russian vodka and a thumb in the eye of his Soviet adversaries.

When you sell those features you’re letting advertisers not just dress up the fiction, but disfigure it, in the name of some half-witted attempt to derive commercial advantage. (You also constrain your characters to treating these commodities with boundless respect; no way will Tony Soprano throw a bowl of Honeycombs in fury at his teenage son.)

Maybe this is the last gasp of advertising-supported media. It was always a furtive economic model, where we got one thing (the programming) by paying for something else (the advertised goods.) With promiscuous product placement, we may finally be getting content that is so thoroughly corrupted that it’s no longer credible as entertainment — and the myth of “free” programming is destroyed at last.

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2 Responses

  1. In one episode of the Sopranos, Tony did get mad at A.J. and smacked a bowl of Honeycomb across the room as he yelled in anger.

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