Product Placement Runs Amok

Once upon a time, the public owned the airwaves and broadcasters were mandated to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” Now, not only has deregulation gutted the public’s rights to educational, local and public affairs programming, even the degraded commercial programming that remains is being converted into wall-to-wall advertisements. The tactic, usually known as “product placement,” is now metastasizing into obnoxious new forms of commercial propagandizing, none of it disclosed.

It used to be that advertisers would slip a Coke can or bag of Doritos onto the set of a sitcom or American Idol in return for large fees. This is itself objectionable because the public, in return for the free use of its airwaves, deserves independent programming, not incessant paid commercials disguised as entertainment. But even this principle is being superseded by the next generation of product placement: Advertisers are working closely with producers and writers to integrate their products into storylines and use products to show the values and aspirations of characters.

Photo by Ben-Millett, via Flicker, licensed under a CC BY-NC-ND license.

A young professional might have an iPod, say, or an attractive woman might conspicuously wear something bearing a Banana Republic label (camera zooms in for a closeup and the character talks about it). The producers of “The Office” recently built two episodes around a character, Dwight, using a Staples paper-shredder in a way that showcased its small size and power.

The idea is to make brand-name products seem so seamless a part of the entertainment that viewers don’t even know they are being advertised to. Now that brand-name products are being integrated into programming, advertisers suddenly want to protect the integrity of programming. Any on-screen disclosures of product placements would be objectionable because they would “interrupt the entertainment experience,” one advertising executive complained to the New York Times. Funny, I’ve never heard advertisers complain in the past about their incessant commercial breaks, which are a rather serious “interruption of the entertainment experience.”

The new commercial invasions of programming have provoked citizen groups like Commercial Alert to call for explicit marketing disclosures. “TV stations pretend that these are just ordinary programs rather than paid ads,” according to Commercial Alert. “This is an affront to basic honesty. Product placements are inherently deceptive, because many people do not realize that they are, in fact, advertisements.”

Commercial Alert is trying to get the government to require disclosure of product placement in all media, including TV, movies, videos, video games, books and “adversongs.” You can find more about the deceptive nature of product placement here. The FCC is considering whether to require explicit marketing disclosures for product placement. You can comment to the FCC by clicking here.