“Product placement” is the practice of prominently displaying a product’s brand name in an entertainment program, whether it is shown visually or referred to in dialogue. But increasingly, this practice goes far beyond Simon Cowell displaying a Coca-cola cup on his desk on American Idol. Many parents and consumer advocacy organizations object to the practice, as it can be especially deceptive when aimed at younger viewers, who are far more susceptible to commercial pressure, and most of whom lack the life experience and intellectual sophistication to discern how they are being manipulated.
A particularly blatant example occurred last Friday night. As noted by the Media Post,
“this weekend’s MTV Movie Awards (and its promotional run-up) blur the lines between entertainment and advertising — as well as traditional and new media platforms — like never before.” Not only did stars of MTV programs appear in commercials for specific products (Teen Wolf‘s Tyler Posey for Axe body spray, Jersey Shore’s Vinny Guadagnino for Dr Pepper), but specific awards themselves were sponsored by the same products – Axe was the exclusive sponsor of the “Best Hero” award, for example.
Any parent who has ever resisted cries by a child to buy a specific toy or brand of breakfast cereal knows the influence advertising has on young minds. This is of particular concern with MTV. While many of the cable network’s programs star older teens and young twenty-somethings, those who run the network know that their channel’s appeal is to a much younger audience. “Our real core demo is really 12-24; that’s who lives and breathes all of our shows,” boasted former MTV head David Janollari.
The result has been a wave of product placements in programs aimed at youngsters. From almost $3 billion spent on product placement five years ago, last year the amount topped over $10 billion – much of it on programs aimed at children and teens. Advertisers know that establishing “brand loyalty” is much easier and more permanent the younger the consumer is. Entire episodes of the teen-targeted CW program Gossip Girl were practically built around product placement, such as one in which the lead characters modeled Victoria’s Secret lingerie…and this is not even counting the show’s ubiquitous references to specific brands of shoes, purses, and suchlike.
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun…and this is true of product placement, as well. At the dawn of mass electronic media on radio, commercials as such were specifically banned. This lead singers Billy Jones and Ernie Hare to bill themselves as “the Interwoven Pair,” to promote their sponsor, Interwoven Socks, a practice followed by bands like Clicquot Club Eskimos and the A&P Gypsies. Once the current practice of commercials was established, by the 1940s, comedy shows like those of Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly used what were then called “integrated commercials,” wherein the product being advertised played a role in the plot.
This trend largely died out in the 1970s, due both to the deaths of most of those in the entertainment and advertising industries who were accustomed to the older way of doing business. Another reason was the resistance of those writers, producers, and actors in the “creative” side of the business. Many of these individuals complained about the crass nature of such blatant advertising, and whined that product placement diluted the quality and compromised the integrity of their programming, thus dulling the luster of their creative brilliance. Because as everyone knows, absolutely NOTHING is more important to those in Hollywood than maintaining their integrity.
But the practice has now returned with a vengeance in the last decade — and has become even more widespread with the rise of technologies, like the DVR, which permit viewers to skip commercials entirely. With traditional commercials increasingly irrelevant to viewers who can skip them, viewers should expect more and more product placement in the future…a fact to which Hollywood’s “creative” personnel will also have to resign themselves. Because where revenue is involved, for Hollywood, money will trump integrity every time.