Has Embedded Advertising Gone Too Far?
Embedded advertising has been running amok for decades now. It imposes itself on our daily lives with the subtlety of a biblical plague, yet goes largely unnoticed. It’s become so perfectly and diabolically inescapable that, at the end of the day, you just have to sit back and admire it—or at least accept it. I’m preaching to you, of course, about product placement (or embedded advertising).
Now, I’m admittedly a bit of a cinephile, which means I spend most of my time with my eyeballs fused to an LCD screen when I should probably be outdoors doing, umm…whatever people do outdoors these days. So I’m pretty well-versed in film and TV, and maybe it’s just a touchy subject for me, but it seems like it’s been quite some time now that I’ve watched anything that wasn’t telling me—in some way, shape, or form—to stop what I’m doing and be the good little consumer that I’m supposed to be.
Remember when E.T. followed a trail of Reese's Pieces?
It used to be that embedded advertisements were as harmless as when Elliot left a delightful trail of Reese’s Pieces for E.T. to follow. It was obvious, but it was kind of priceless too. These days, however, I have to draw the line when Tom Hanks makes best friends with a brand-name volleyball. Pretty soon the day will come when we won’t be able to sit through a twelfth-century Renaissance-era period piece without one of the local serfs sporting the latest iPod!
I know that product placement makes economic sense. Television and film are big business in this country. If the Associated Press says that movies are America’s number two export (secondary to the aerospace industry), then I’m inclined to believe them. After all, if you’re going to make hundreds of millions of dollars in domestic and foreign box-office, then production and advertising doesn’t come cheap. It’s no wonder that brand name companies with pockets deep enough to cover the national debt want in on the action—and expect a return on their investment, even if it means saturating the viewer with their brand image to the point of nausea.
Like many so many others with little or no recourse, I guess I’ve just grown mostly apathetic to such blatant brand promotion. But even if we’re not paying attention, advertisements (of any type) have a way of paying attention to us—whether we like it or not. It’s sad that we sometimes have to judge the worth of most of today’s movies and TV shows based on how seamlessly they’re able to incorporate name brands into a storyline. The trick is to at least try to stay optimistic. For me, that sometimes means being a little more philosophical about what I’m watching.
Embedded advertising plays a central role in AMC's hit show, "Mad Men."
In the TV arena, for example, AMC’s Mad Men—though it showcases several name brands on a regular basis—uses the very idea and business of modern advertising as the focal point from which the series grows. Set at an advertising agency in the 1960’s, the show examines the art of brand promotion and development. Product placement is such a vital component of the Mad Men’s structure that to remove it would be to remove much of its integrity.
In recent film, we can look at The Social Network as an example of how embedded marketing can be subverted or made more palatable. What could have easily been a two-hour ad for Facebook was instead fashioned into a thematic exploration of the network’s impact on its users. The film examines the network’s invasiveness and makes us question how it’s changed the notion of “connectedness” in the so-called information era.
We really have to give credit to these and other modern examples of what I like to think of as “progressive product placement.” At least in such cases the attempt is being made to impose a certain amount of artfulness where there could have easily been none. Since embedded advertising is obviously here to stay, I guess I’ll have to remain either indifferent or philosophical about it—until I see serfs with iPods. At that point, I give up.
What do you think about embedded advertising/product placement in the entertainment industry?