The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Product placement, or the "embedding" of sponsor products into the actual content of a TV show/movie/book/song, was supposed to be prevalent by now. I remember seeing an old episode of Siskel & Ebert back in the late 80s decrying the trend in movies (I particularly recall their Exhibit #1: a Coke machine prominently placed in the foreground during a pivotal scene in Rambo: First Blood Part II.)

In some ways, product placement has become standard operating procedure. The WB, in particular, seems to do it all the time, from using Warner Music recording artists as the background music in their crappy shows to inserting that stupid Verizon Wireless "Can You Hear Me Now" guy into a block of episodes on a given night. Anyone who's read a fair amount of Stephen King knows that he can't get through even a short story without inserting tons of brand-specific product names. And let's not forget Island Def Jam's intention to auction off product-specific lyrics in the songs of its recording artists, like Busta Rhymes.

Nevertheless, there's still plenty of debate on what the limits of this new type of advertising should be, and whether or not media consumers are feeling duped by it.

I have mixed feelings about product placement. On the one hand, when I encounter a pretty clumsy attempt at it in something I'm watching, I do feel insulted. My reaction is one of, "Can't they lay off on the sell-job for at least a minute and let me watch my show??". If it's something that overrides the entire plot, or just insinuates itself to a degree where it's annoying, I'll stop watching. In that sense, I can't see what an advertiser gains from this. Whereas with traditional commercial or advertising spots, you can at least hope that the audience will sort of pay attention to a designated period of time when they know that they're being sold to.

On the other hand... My outrage doesn't get too out of hand. Why, I don't know. Maybe it's because I work in media now, and I'm more aware of the necessity of advertising dollars to produce content. But as long as the placement is done in a way that's not hamfisted, I don't really mind. I'm just as aware of it, but I don't feel like it's being shoved down my throat. In a funny way, the example that most readily comes to mind is in sports. Sports constitutes the majority of my television viewing these days, and I'm acutely aware that it's impossible to watch any sporting event, from the Super Bowl to the World's Strongest Man Competition and not be exposed to countless product placement images: on the boards at a hockey game, on the outfield walls at a baseball game, when the game stats are shown onscreen, etc. It's a fact of life, and while I know it works on a subliminal level, it's also quite easy to tune it out.

Do I miss the days when, for instance, the Brady Bunch kids would turn on a radio and, instead of hearing a real song/band come on, some nonsense generic "rock-n-roll" music would blare out? I can't say that I feel that made for a better product; I can't say it made it any worse, either. What's ironic is that back in the day, a lot of companies prohibited the use of their names and properties in that way, because they didn't want to be associated with anything they didn't have a direct hand in creating. Nowadays, they're paying for the priviledge.