Will the FCC Ruin Product Placement?


ag_justice_small.jpgADOTAS EXCLUSIVE — A quick quiz for ad industry colleagues….

Product placement is:
a) the bane of consumers’ existence;
b) a reckless and oppressive practice through which greedy corporate titans line their tailored Armani suit pockets with filthy lucre;
c) a diabolical ploy designed by nervous nelly ad agency account directors fearful of losing revenues as ad-skipping consumers take control of their viewing experience.
d) a successful advertising tactic whose slamming is as trendy as its logic is tortured.

Though a 25 year television ad agency veteran, my candid – and traitorous — choice is “a,b,c,” –blame it on an upbringing by a TV-phobic highbrow mother. But — inspired by a recent viewing of Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters” (4 stars) — I’ve decided to take the “Affirmative” position on this issue. After all, my agency’s existence may depend on it.

As you read this, many are lobbying big government to save “us” (as in “the people”) from “them” (as in “we,” crafty advertisers). It’s this political element that almost guarantees self-contradictory posturing from both sides of the aisle.

But before proposed regulations twist your soon-to-be Hanes in a bunch, take a deep breath and relax. Walk down to your agency’s Vendoland for a cool refreshing bottle of Diet Coke. Once bubbling with carbonization and creativity, fire up your Blackberry and remind all your colleagues of the good old days, when Roseanne’s husband Dan drank the very same Miller High Life as Archie Bunker. Sure we invite some more scrutiny now—but at least we’re not complicit in pretense.

Product placement’s critics simply aren’t thinking things through. Imagine “Sex in the City” without Prada, or real-life teenagers who can’t tell a Hollister blouse from one from Abercrombie & Fitch. How realistic are televised adolescents that don’t brag of their Grad Prix or Mustang? And of course no one plays “video games” … they play Xbox, Wii and Playstation 3. Writers can whine about products intruding upon story lines, but verisimilitude demands that they do. Dialogue like “Me and Tyler are gonna play Xbox isn’t intrusive at all, because we hear it in millions of living rooms. “Me and Tyler are gonna play a video game.” is ten times more interruptive because it just sounds so bogus.

The New York Times quotes Robert Weissman of the nonprofit watchdog group Commercial Alert as contending that advertiser participation in program scripting represents “fundamental encroachments on the independence of the programming.” Independence? TV shows enjoy independence? Well, maybe on cable, with its sympathetic serial killers and “Sopranos” swearing like tenors who hit their thumb with a hammer. And there’s certainly independence with direct response television infomercials, where the ad is the program and there’s no pretense otherwise. But for the big broadcast networks “independence” means stations that buy up your reruns. Seriously … as long as standards panels employ people to say “you can’t say that,” the compromised independence angle rings pretty hollow.

Of course, the most frequent attack against product placement is encapsulated in quiz option “c.” Placement’s pernicious! Viewers can’t see how we sneaky old advertisers build brand awareness! But for this to be true, you must assume that all viewers are stupid. If product placement was embedded beyond consumer perception, no sensible advertiser would invest. “Subliminal seduction” ended its fifteen minute run once William Bryan Key’s The Clam Plate Orgy book came out, arguing that erotically-positioned fried clams on Howard Johnson’s placemats deceitfully drove seafood sales. Advertising today is about blatant seduction—showing off products in their very best light: solving vexing problems in demonstrable ways. When you think about it, that’s pretty much product placement’s goal too.

While we don’t see Simon Cowell idling back in his chair to exhale a loud “ahhhh” after swigging his Coke, we do see that Coke quenches thirst. And while ER’s revolving roster won’t “look up the records on the Dell,” a simple logo can confirm that a brand is quite functional. If you come into my office when I’m writing, you might see me drinking Diet Pepsi, working in Windows on an HP Pavilion. You’d think this is perfectly normal. You would not think that I’m advertising Pavilions and Pepsi.

Here’s what I want to know: if we can cope with our brands in reality, why should it be a problem to see a small handful on television?

I’m seeking consistency here. TV product embeds are somehow underhanded, but branded t-shirts and umbrellas are all above board? True, it’s your choice to buy and wear a Coke sweatshirt, but it’s equally a choice to watch White Sox baseball, whose 7-11 start time is sponsored by the convenience store chain. By the logic of the scrolling disclaimer advocates, the next time we see New England Patriot’s Bill Belichick staring from the sidelines at his play chart—while conversing over his headset with an assistant in the skybox—ESPN will replace its score crawl with what consumers apparently need more: “Bill Belichick’s headset is a paid promotion by Motorola, proud sponsor and provider of telecommunications to the National Football League. Coach Belichick’s clothing is provided by Nike, NFL sponsor for team gear. His clipboard is courtesy of Staples. Staples … yeah, that disclaimer was easy.”

Such disruptive schemes run utterly counter to another common gripe: that product appearances interrupt a show’s flow. We again face insulting assumptions. If TV viewers truly can’t sustain focus on plotlines should “Gateway” appear on the back of a computer monitor, the GDP would collapse overnight. Then again, maybe our regulators would then have some real work to do.

That said, it won’t surprise me a bit should the FCC issue new dictates. Though we’ll find them annoying to accept, and challenging to implement, just remember this promising precedent. In 1990, the DRTV industry faced similar nanny state hectoring. The Feds insisted that viewers needed to be notified that a half hour of in-your-face selling via infomercials was a “commercial.” (What minimal IQ is required to discern that?!) Government imposed rules—as government does—so we followed them as legally bound. Long Form programs added statements that, “The following program is a paid advertisement.” Despite initial qualms, we eventually declared victory. Not only did program-generated sales remain robust, the industry benefited from a credibility boost. Apparently, forthrightly proclaiming sales intentions in on-screen graphics was endearingly honest behavior.

Oh well, the law is the law. So even if the details get our collective eyes rolling, we remain as vibrant an industry as ever. We’re creative enough, and client-centered enough to develop new tactics to get the job done. And doggone it, people will like us! Perhaps even more than before.


  1. “Dialogue like ‘Me and Tyler are gonna play Xbox’ isn’t intrusive at all, because we hear it in millions of living rooms.”

    It isn’t intrusive until it’s sandwiched between two lines to which there is little or no logical connection, as writers try to “seemlessly” cram “placement” into dialogue.

    Screen bugs weren’t (too) intrusive, until they became massive, animated, distracting messes that step on the in-frame image, including titles and sub-titles. All in the name of advertising.

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