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Advertising and the Debate of Product Placement

E.T. loved Reese’s Pieces. So do I. Simon Cowell drank Coke. Ditto again. These are obvious examples of product placement. And potentially they are examples of their possible impact. But more on that later…

Before I launch too far into this segment I’d like to express my viewpoints on the use of the term “product placement.” Vivian writes that “in the 1980s, advertisers began wiggling brand-name products into movie scripts,” and the practice of “product placement” took root. I think the key discerning factor here is the term “brand-name products”. I think there is a distinction here. I feel that, perhaps in subtle or subliminal ways, “product placement” has been in use since the early days of movies and television, but not in reference to “branded” products. I would like to make the argument that, in the same way that a Coke cup on the Idol judges desk might increase the sale of Coke, could seeing Humphrey Bogart light up a cigarette possibly increase the potential for the viewer to take up smoking (no matter what brand), and therefore help the tobacco industry as a whole?

Did the tobacco industry push to have their products used in early movies? Probably not, but I’m sure they didn’t complain. It was an accepted form of self-enjoyment appropriate to the time. It helped make the film characters real and relatable to many viewers. Couldn’t the same be said of the Idol Coke drinkers? Does seeing them drink soda, regardless of the brand, make them more relatable to a vast majority of their viewers? Probably so, considering the show’s audience demographic is youths to young adults. And if the viewer relates more on a personal level to the characters on their television screen, are they not more inclined to participate with the show and watch more frequently? So are these brand placements helping to sell more products, or are they subliminally helping the show to solidify an audience? I feel they have the potential to be successful at both. But, as a Marketplace segment on new TV ads relates, there are no forms of quantitative analysis to be able to prove it. In that segment Michael Burgi states, “I don’t think it works any more or less than advertising has.”

I cannot argue the fact that there may be critics who feel that TV viewers are being duped by these brand placements and that FCC regulation could be required. Or that artistic integrity could suffer if placements become too rampant. But don’t viewers also see paid ad placements in other subtle/subliminal formats such as when we watch scrolling banners at basketball and soccer games, or see stadium billboards when watching football? Will the FCC eventually want to regulate those impressions as well?

Just as there may be those being duped, there is also a segment of the viewing audience which will not be impacted by viewing these brand placements. I enjoyed Reese’s Pieces before E.T. ever came to earth. But I didn’t eat more because of him. The same holds true for me with Simon Cowell and Coke. (He actually made me drink Scotch… to ease my pain!)

As I stated earlier, product placement enhances reality for the viewer. It’s all a matter of solidifying the media’s context. Here’s an example from another Marketplace segment:

MAN IN AD: These guys, they’ve been working all day, they have to be really hungry.

WOMAN IN AD: You’re probably right. So I had an idea . . . ha ha, Wendy’s!

Yes, it’s a blatant “endorsement” for the Wendy’s “brand”. But isn’t it also an endorsement of the fast-food industry as a whole? Which is worse: the brand advertisement itself or the support of less-than-healthy eating choices that the bulk of the American TV audience relates to? Think how out of context that blurb would be if it ended, “You’re probably right. So I had an idea . . . ha ha, let’s go home and have some fruits and veggies!” You would hear a collective click as most of America changed the channel.

In conclusion, I may have asked more questions than I answered in this discussion. What do you think about some of my ideas?

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