The Product-Placement Invasion Intensifies

Now that people can use TiVOs, remote controls and fast-forward buttons to skip commercials, advertisers have decided to step up their efforts to force-feed us ads. A recent story in Advertising Age estimates that because traditional advertising is growing too cluttered and ineffective, spending on product placement advertising is going to surge in 2006 by 25%. Global spending will go to $7.5 billion this year and to $14 billion by 2010.

Product placement, you may recall, is the practice of slipping Coke cans onto the judges’ desk on American Idol, and the prominent visibility of Beefeater Gin in certain scenes of a movie. It’s essentially about commercializing virgin social spaces. (OK, network TV shows may not quite be virginal, but you get the idea!) If people can successfully avoid ads, advertisers are going to fight back by intensifying their efforts to get in your face. How? By putting name-brand products directly in a TV show or film so you can’t avoid seeing them. By inserting ads in places that have traditionally been non-commercial zones — bodies, bathrooms, schools, social spaces.

Here’s a chilling money quote from the president of PQ Media, which conducted a recent study about product placement trends:

Product placement has evolved from a novel marketing tactic to a key marketing strategy on a global scale, as brand marketers seek more effective methods to make important emotional connections with consumers.

As if on cue, today’s Wall Street Journal reports (9/28/06) that major league soccer will start selling “jersey rights” to advertisers. This is a perfect instance of “seamless brand integration” because you can’t avoid seeing the logo if you want to watch a professional soccer game. The creeping logos have already invaded college football; the net that catches field goals and point-after kicks has an Allstate Insurance logo.

As these examples suggest, product placement advertising has an almost unstoppable momentum. There’s so much money to be made, it doesn’t take a genius to commercialize untouched social space, and the public cannot easily express its irritation. I consider the proliferation of product placement the mental equivalent of sprawl. It eliminates all space for intelligent life to gather, and then it provides its own “solution”…. the mall!

One of the most pernicious aspects of ad creep is that it is self-reinforcing. All it takes is one new advertising inroad — on soccer jerseys, for example — and other sports leagues will jump up to say, “Well, if soccer can do it, so can we!” Major League Baseball floated the idea of sponsorships on the sleeves of players’ uniforms last year, but backed away when baseball fans and sports columnists got mad. You can be sure MJB will be back, and it will cite soccer jerseys as a precedent.

Gary Ruskin at Commercial Alert has organized against this and other naming-rights plans in the past. What’s needed are more focused, efficient ways to get in the face of corporate advertisers and shout “Enough!” Any ideas?