The Ethics of Product Placement

Panel Presentation,

Magazine, Media Ethics and Advertising divisions,
Annual Conference, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
San Francisco, Calif.
August 3, 2006

What is the ethics perspective on product placement? That is, is there anything wrong with product placement, and if so, what does that wrong consist of?

I’m going to start by putting product placement into context, and this context involves far more than getting Captain Crunch onto Tony Soprano’s breakfast table.

I’ll suggest that context is one of a steady, sweeping process of inventorying and exploiting practically all modes of communication for their potential utility as marketing instruments: from conversation to public ceremony, including the mass media.

So most of the concerns I’ll raise apply to this wider phenomenon, and the questions raised by product placement implicate an extensive and growing number of contemporary techniques.

After I survey that context, I’ll try to identify what the ethical concerns are with product placement.

There we will look at three areas:

1. Deception
2. Expressive integrity
3. Trust

Context: To my first point about context: It’s difficult to exaggerate the scale and audacity of efforts to insert commercial intent into unrelated communicative contexts.

Consider some of the more notable expressions of this process, part of what media scholar Robert McChesney has called, hypercommercialism.

The Pope. Getting one of the most closely observed and most admired people in the world to use your products is certainly a coup, and apparently Pope Benedict XVI is an appealing target of carmakers, shoe-makers, sunglass manufacturers etc. The Vatican isn’t paid for the Pope’s choices, according to the report in the Wall Street Journal.

Theater. Product integration has come to Broadway, with Neil Simon deleting a mention of scotch from “Sweet Charity” in favor of a paying tequila brand; Sprint got itself written into an off-Broadway production.

Books: This started in 2001 when Bulgari, the Italian jeweler, paid novelist Fay Weldon to feature the brand in a book called “The Bulgari Connection.” It has now spread to young adult fiction, especially books targeting teen girls. Also, Procter and Gamble’s Cover Girl is highlighted in exchange for marketing mentions on a web site catering to adolescent girls.

Comic books. The Detroit Free Press reports that Time Warner’s DC Comics has created a new series, Rush City, as a paid product placement for Pontiac’s Solstice. Marvel Comics, having already done deals with Sony, Schwinn and Nike, has a deal of its own to slip Dodge Calibers into Spider Man comics.

Gas station TV: Advertising Age says a startup company called Gas Station TV plans to have 20-inch video screens on the pumps in 100 gas stations in Atlanta and Houston by fall, and hopes for 400 stations in top 10 markets by January. Since the “captive audience” stands pumpside from 4 to 4-1/2 minutes, programming will consist of 4-minute loops of ABC content with 15-second ads.

Eggs: CBS is emblazoning ad slogans and its trademark eye on 35 million eggs this fall.

Puke bags: US Airways will be selling space on air sickness bags.

Video games: Food industry is developing such games as Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout and the Pop-Tart Slalom, built to attract young people to web sites where they can interact with brands, register to learn about new products, etc.

School buses. BusRadio, according to the Wall Street Journal, has contracted with school districts in Massachusetts, California and Illinois, to put custom-designed radio programs beamed via bus speakers, with about 8 minutes per hour of ads.

E-mail: Following the hijacking of the postal service, which serves overwhelmingly as a vehicle for junk mail, it’s estimated that 75% of e-mail is spam.

Most worrisome, forms of person-to-person communication. Advertising has discovered viral marketing online and buzz marketing, in which paid operatives agree to talk up products among people they know. An estimated 85% of top 1,000 marketers already using buzz marketing, now worth $100m-150m/yr., according to Advertising Age.

This represents an insertion of commercial calculation deep into the fabric of interpersonal relations, of friendships.

(I’m not sure what’s next. My own candidate is traffic lights, since somebody eventually will tumble to the fact that motorists sit there, gaping at the lights, and would make ideal ad targets._

And of course, product placement. PriceWaterhouseCoopers says placement on TV will growth to $10b in revenue by 2010, up from $750m in 2005.

In the first quarter of 2006, prime time TV on average had more than 17 minutes of commercials and over three minutes of product integrations—meaning 35 percent of air time devoted to commercial messages, according to TNS Media Intelligence. In so-called reality programs, that can be more than 40 percent in an average hour-18-plus minutes of ads plus over 7-1/2 of overt product integration.

And we’re not talking solely about fictional content. A PR Week survey released in June 2006 found 49% of 266 senior PR execs admitted to paying for placement, chiefly in magazines and broadcasting. (And half of those who haven’t said they would if asked.) Here the targets were photos and news features.

Such is the context of galloping commercialization, sometimes overt, sometimes furtive.

Now to the ethical problems with product placement. I want to consider three areas: deception, what I’ll call expressive integrity and trust.

1. Deception: The insertion of clearly branded products as if they were naturally occurring artifacts in a disinterested fictional landscape feels deceptive, but is it really? And does the wrong depend on the audience’s being tricked? What if the audience is in on it, or grows to view product placement as a routine and expected element of content? If the deception is gone, does the wrong then disappear?

Product placement doesn’t involve any of the usual elements of deception. You aren’t being lied to. The character isn’t kidding about enjoying the Diet Coke and isn’t falsely driving the BMW. So what’s deceptive?

I think the falsity consists of gaining entry under false pretenses. The commercial mentions aren’t labeled as such, and we’re caught unawares, with our consumer skepticism on hold. We haven’t been alerted to put on the filters we normally use in dealing with content that we know is deliberately manipulative. We’re susceptible, distracted. We agreed to hear a story, not sit through a sales pitch. So our attention is on the drama we’re watching, the dilemma the character is facing, and we may think we don’t even notice the brand of beer he opens. What we experience as deception and trickery is perhaps better understood as resentment that the marketer is taking advantage of a susceptibility that we weren’t aware of.

Actually, in a larger sense product placement replicates the essentials of any good advertisement. The psychological structure of a classic ad is intended to distract and disarm us to make us receptive to the sales message. Hence, what product placement does is transform the entire surrounding content into a series of advertisements.

Fair enough, but I’m not sure this is deception. And how much of this is a matter of convention? Perhaps the problem is that our training as consumers has lagged behind marketing practice. After all, traditional TV ads aren’t labeled as such. We’ve been trained to recognize the pause, the changes in voice, visual cues and the like, and we say, oh, this is a commercial. Time to go to the bathroom. If we are retrained to understand fictional forms as some mongrel form of integrated marketing and creative expression, we’d no longer have a basis to object to product placement  not, that is, on grounds of deceptiveness.

That may be the direction we’re going. An October 2005 survey by media agency StarCom Mediavest found 65% of consumers believed editorial mentions of products in magazine articles were paid for. So does the harm disappear?

I think not. Deceptiveness, as an ethical critique, rests on shifting sands. But we’d still have other grounds on which to object to product placement.

2. Expressive integrity: Here I want to talk about product placement as a process by which the vocabulary of creative expression is altered as a direct and deliberate response to payments. Accordingly, even if audience expectations evolved (or degraded) to where people no longer expected programming to be free of commercial insertions, something would still be lost.

It’s true, as placement supporters say, that we inhabit a brand-rich environment, and when we see characters in a supposedly realistic film reaching for a bottle of beer labeled, “Beer,” we disbelieve the authenticity of the scene.

What that suggests, however, is that brands constitute a palette with which creative artists can portray character and comment on how fictional people spend their money and express their personalities. Bond drove an Aston Martin and smoked Turkish Sobranis for reasons. A TV private eye lives in a trailer and drives a beat-up old MG — these are touches his creators decided on that helped flesh out their characterizations.

Now those defining elements are being put out to auction, and control over a colorful and eloquent segment of the creative vocabulary is gone.

How far that will spread is unknowable. It’s no longer a matter of getting Evian on the table, its label facing the camera. Scriptwriters are being pressured to make provision for explicit mention of products, and narratives are being altered to enable the plugs to be seamless, graceful, even amusing. (And don’t forget, legitimate creative options are foreclosed too: Tony Soprano won’t be throwing Captain Crunch in AJ’s face. And he won’t complain that his mother would never have served such junk to him instead of a proper, hot breakfast.)

What is it, then, that we’re watching?

To my final point:

3. Trust: I think, ultimately, this is the most serious ethical problem with placements. The consequence of widespread, undeclared product placement is to create a taint, to cast doubt on the purpose of even innocuous communication and raise the possibility that it too has an ulterior motive, an unstated aim, which is manipulation.

We’re no longer telling, we’re selling.

It is true that commercial media were born with a sales mission. But it’s easy to make too much of that truism. Artists have always wanted audiences; they’ve always sought to draw a crowd. But that didn’t make them marketers.

We trust that they’re ultimately committed to presenting their art. We take that on faith, we trust their good will. And as moral philosopher Annette Baier has written, trust is a generalized reliance on the good will of the other person, not the competence, but the good will. If the wish to entertain, to enlighten, to inspire or provoke, is assumed to be routinely pressed into service of the ulterior wish to sell things, what happens to the essential relationship created by the communication?

Maybe the commercial nature of placements blinds us to what’s going on; after all, they’re just selling stuff. So instead, suppose we’re not talking about plugging a product. Instead, a producer is clandestinely paid to be sure that the program hypes a religion, or a political philosophy. Or, perhaps, to say something nasty about a political figure.

Something has changed in the relationship that’s created by that communication. Just as you no longer can look at a relationship the same way after you learn that your friend who was rapturous about her new blue jeans was being paid to shill for the apparel line.

What’s gone is trust. And I’d conclude that even if product placement comes to be accepted, that acceptance will come at the cost of a belief we deserve to have, that the people whose work we watch and listen to are intending to entertain, illuminate, provoke, inspire– not to quietly nudge us in a direction they’re not telling us they’re being paid to encourage.

So to conclude, I’d suggest the ethical critique of product placement based on deceptiveness, even though it feels intuitively right, isn’t strong, but that criticism based on a loss of expressive integrity and a destruction of trust is powerful and accurate.

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