Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

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?

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."

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?


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  1. QLP Jill

    Wonderful post, Joe!

    Would you believe me if I told you that product placement doesn’t bother me in movies or on TV? I don’t even notice it anymore (unless it’s way over the top) and I’d much rather see some embedded advertising than sit through 4 minutes of commercials for every 10 minutes of television show. However, I can’t help but feel cheated when I do see product placement, because I immediately think of subliminal advertising. There’s almost something tricksy and wrong about it!

    I think that product placement will eventually replace paid commercials and ads as the primary form of advertisement. Sometimes it’s overbearing, but it can be entertaining, too. Many movies or shows even make jokes out of it (“Josie and the Pussycats” and “30 Rock” are two I can think of off the top of my head that blatantly use product promotion – and you couldn’t miss it if you tried). But it doesn’t belong in every movie and show, and I DEFINITELY understand it can be annoying, especially when it’s not done smoothly and it interrupts what you’re watching. And I’m with you on the iPod comment: the day I see a Renaissance piece that involves twenty-first century technology, I’m officially done! 😉

  2. Bret Bonnet

    Joseph – This is a VERY insightful and well written post!

    I agree, product placement can either MAKE/BREAK a movie or television show. As you pointed out I’ve become so used to these types of adverts that I’ve almost become immune to them – almost to the point where I can’t even recall one instance of product placement in a movie that I’ve seen recently, even though embedded advertising in some way, shape or form, was involved – only because I’ve learned to just block these types of adverts out completely.

    You might get your wish however… The prequel to the “Lord of the Rings” is scheduled to start filming soon, and if all goes as planned, Peter Jackson might very well have Frodo sporting a new iPod touch as he frolics through the shire!

    • QLP Jill

      Bret: Perish the thought! I would drive to PJ’s house and personally kick him in the shins if I see a hobbit, wizard, elf, or any other LOTR character with an iPod! 🙁

      You have no idea how excited I am for The Hobbit! And the new Harry Potter movies! I’m going to be one of those people camped out in front for tickets, so feel free to poke fun…

      • Bret Bonnet


  3. Bumcivilian

    Good POST, SO TRUE! ahhh… Product placement, classic conditioning that will stick with us forever. A good example PEPSI, DORITOS, ADVIL, every time I watch Wayne’s World I feel a sudden urge for all of these items. Good example With E.T. think about it how often do us creatures of habit watch things over and over, or at least I do, and let me tell you seeing these items over and over again they are permanently embedded in the thought process…. it is almost toooo well thought out hmmm… perhaps Extra Terrestrial beings created this regime of the consumer product cycle we are stuck in…. very clever, they aren’t fooling me NOOOO Sir! I got my tin foil helmet and I am ready.

  4. Stantz

    Embedded advertising is all over the place in most modern videogames too. One example of this is billboards placed throughout the world of the game that can be refreshed with new ads daily!

    I also remember playing the 7up “Spot” games for NES back in the day too…

    • Joe Giorgi

      I’ve definitely seen banners and billboards show up in several video games–open-world and sports titles mostly. But I had no idea that they could be refreshed with new advertisements daily. I suppose it makes sense with the new consoles, seeing as how their internet connectivity makes for instantaneous upgrades to the gameplay experience, but it’s sad that it’s being used for that purpose. It’s downright fiendish. Necessary evil, though.

      Side note: I thought “Cool Spot” was only out on Genesis and SNES.

  5. Rex Riepe

    Joe, I think you make a few good points here.

    Product placement is definitely becoming more common due simply to economic factors created by the new TV viewing environment.

    I think a turning point will come when advertisers realize that bad product placement is less effective than good product placement– the type that doesn’t walk all over the story.

    In public relations, one of the big ideas is that you shouldn’t just do what’s right because it’s right, but do it because it makes more economic sense. In other words, when people see you doing bad things, you lose customers.

    I think we’ll soon see this type of thinking in product placement, followed by more tasteful placements in all entertainment media.

  6. Michael

    In the given example of the film Social Network did Facebook contribute financially for the movie to be made or was it genuinely a movie about the origins of Facebook. If the former then Joseph is correct in that the movie, which I enjoyed, was a massive advertising plus for FB. If not then FB only benefited tangentially from the film. I think that there is an ethical difference between the two. Another example, albeit more ridiculous, was Edgar a movie paid for by the FBI or about the FBI?

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