Media & Journalism · Pop Culture & Social Trends

Advertainment: Product Placement Makes Crap Crappier

[I‘m working on a new column about product placement on “Days of Our Lives“, where plugs for Cheerios, Chex Mix, and Midol have been written into recent scripts, when I realized I wrote about something similar four years ago. Look below!]

Good news: Television commercials are nearly extinct. The rise of TiVo, DVRs, broadband video downloads, and other commercial-eliminating viewing methods are making the 30-second TV advertising spot a thing of the past.

Coke on Idol
Hey, Paula’s Coca-Cola logo is facing the wrong way! Fired!

Bad news: Television commercials are alive and well, and living inside the television shows we watch.

Product placement in television shows and movies is replacing the 30-second commercial as the prime way to promote product. Some reality shows are built around product placement. Contestants on The Apprentice recently competed to produce a Microsoft commercial. Survivor contestants win Hondas. Fear Factor contestants win pre-paid Visa cards.

Scripted Entertainment, Real Bullshit

Oreos on Friends
Oreos on Friendsthe only thing palatable about this bland show.

But reality shows are a mutation of traditional game shows, which often have corporate sponsors (doesn’t anyone give away boxes of Rice-A-Roni anymore?) But what’s happening now is brand name products are appearing more and more prominently on fictional shows, as well.

The first time I saw an episode of 24 I thought it was one long commercial for cell phones; the characters are forever jabbering away, even when they’re jumping from airplanes and/or getting shot at. And I get a kick out of the banks of Apple computers seen in the headquarters on 24. It’s highly unlikely a top-notch government security agency like CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) would be using a bunch of Macs, unless they were mixing a hip-hop album or editing video. But Apple is smart; for years they’ve been giving Hollywood honchos free stuff, and, as a result, their products pop up frequently in films and television shows. Apple computer only has 10 percent of the personal computer market, yet it seems like 80 percent of the fictional characters on TV use them.

Product placement really works. After Drew Barrymore laid out a line of Reese’s Pieces to lure E.T. out of hiding in 1982, sales for the peanut buttery treat shot up 65%. In 1993’s The Firm, Gene Hackman urges Tom Cruise to “grab a Red Stripe” during his visit to the Cayman Islands. Within a month of the film’s release, sales of the Jamaican-brewed beer had increased by 50% in the United States, and few weeks later, company owners sold a majority stake of Red Stripe to Guinness Brewing Worldwide for $62 million. And Ray-Ban sunglasses have movies like Risky Business (1983) and Men In Black (1997) to thank for their brisk sales.

You’d be super-spy cool if you had this overpriced Omega watch.

Money Talks, So Say What The Advertiser Wants

Today there are several companies and web-based agencies that facilitate product placement, hooking advertisers up with the producers who need props. On the NextMedium web site, movie studios, TV networks, and videogame producers can post scripts with specific product requests and advertisers can bid on the available placement opportunities. Once a deal is done, NextMedium will measure the exposure of that placement by determining how many people saw it and how a brand’s total exposure compares with that of competitors.One of the beautiful things about product placement, as far as advertisers are concerned, is that the footage lives forever in reruns and DVD releases.

You can’t blame advertisers for wedging their products into fictional shows. Their advertising budgets are paying for the production for these programs, and if people aren’t going to watch their commercials, they’re going to get their money’s worth somehow. But it cheapens an already sordid art form. How long before we see Tony Soprano asking Paulie Walnuts how he gets his shirts so clean and white? Or Jack Bauer launches into a monologue on Cingular’s new calling plans?

pepsi in Waynes World
At least Wayne and Garth had funny with the over-the-top product placements in Wayne’s World.

I prefer the old days of entertainment, when a sneaker was any old shoe, and soft drinks were served in non-descript glasses, not cans with the labels turned to conveniently face the camera. Keep commercials in designated commercial breaks, and leave the soft selling out of fictional forms of entertainment.


Reprinted courtesy of WAYNE TODAY, October 2006

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