Sunday, October 02, 2005

An ad by any other name

A group of television writers recently staged a protest against product placement in their own creative product, at an Advertising Week panel in New York. Their focus was reality television, but product placement has been annoying viewers - or flying over our heads - since long before most of us realized that so-called unscripted shows even had scriptwriters. It is, however, becoming a more prevalent source of income for many shows. According to The Guardian, US advertisers will spend an estimated $825 million on product placement this year, after $550 million in 2004.

I find it hard to get worked up about the crass commercialization of reality television, mostly because I don't watch much of it, but also because the bits I have seen are so blatant, there's no subliminal message to fear.

But it's becoming more prevalent in scripted shows, too. In one of the most extreme recent examples, Will and Grace's live season premiere featured Rosario talking about Subway's new chicken parmigiana sandwich, shortly before a commercial aired for that very same sandwich. Usually, product placement is slightly more subtle.

It's more distracting for me to see characters drinking Bob’s Brand Cola than a familiar can of Coke, but when Coke cans threaten to take over the screen, it can take me out of the fictional world. And there's something very wrong if the viewer feels the presence of ad reps in the writers room. We need subtle, but not subliminal.

Knowing that money changed hands to have a can of Coke in the shot – more if an actor drinks from it – may seem a little disquieting. But not knowing that money changed hands is even more so. Some consumer groups worry about the subliminal effect of this form of advertising, particularly on children, and want full disclosure.

Fox's House, M.D. has a blink-and-miss-it product placement card in its closing credits, for companies like IBM, Dell, and Philips Electronics. So next time I’m in the market for an MRI, I’ll be sure to demand a Philips. Except … bad things happen to Dr. House's patients in that Philips MRI. Maybe the company should pay to have the producers use Bob’s Brand MRIs instead.

Full disclosure would make our role as active viewers and educated consumers easier, though I'd want that disclosure to be clearer than House's “production assistance furnished by ..." or the ever-popular “promotional consideration provided by ...". How about the clarity of: “Dell paid us to use their computers"?

Most viewers don't seem to care that Jack Bauer drives only Fords on 24. Scattered complaints and grumblings are unlikely to stop producers from exploring this revenue stream further, especially since advertisers fear the fragmentation of the market and power of TiVo, other digital recorders, and downloads to cut into their captive audience in a far, far bigger way that remote controls and bathroom breaks ever did.

So the fundamental question is what are we willing to pay for the convenience of new methods of delivery that reduce the prominence of conventional ads? If this is one stepping stone on the networks' slow, stumbling path towards accepting the potential of current technology and legal electronic distribution, I'll happily watch Dr. House listen to his Apple iPod and play his Nintendo Gameboy Advance, and see Ty Pennington make homeowners cry over their new Kenmore appliances.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"Any ad consciously attended to is comical. Ads are not meant for conscious consumption. They are intended as subliminal pills for the subconsious in order to exercise an hypnotic spell, especially on sociologists."
- Marshall McLuhan