Has Product Placement Made Our Television Viewing Experience Worse?

Human Rights

It's not news that, in a world of Tivo and Youtube, remote control and cable radio, the traditional commercial is something passe. As standard ads shrink from 30-second slots to 10-second reminders, TV cameras increasingly linger over Survivors eating Doritos and Jack Bauer driving his Ford on the car company's favorite station FOX. A study last year discovered that nearly 11 percent of all network minutes include a branded reference and the Philly Inquirer recently started carrying a Citizens Bank-sponsored column. Last month, a Dallas radio station decided to do one better. It pulled ads altogether, replacing them with sponsored segments and product-plugged banter:

"You know, the best way to get down to Austin for South by Southwest is Southwest Airlines. They have tons of flights. It's the way I travel."

Yes, this so-called "product integration" is all the rage. But by replacing 15 minutes of commercial airtime with two minutes of branded chat, the Clear Channel station, KZPS, did more than prove that what works for American Idol can work for radio. It also paraded its announcement as a consumer victory. They claimed their new format both cut down on commercial clutter and marked a return to the golden years of American radio.

"In a sense, we're recapturing the early days of FM," said programmer Duane Doherty, "when your jock was a trusted guide through what was new and important."

Never mind, for a minute, the use of the terms "trusted" and "important." Doherty has a point. Because direct advertising was not allowed, early radio was always brought to us by our favorite corporate sponsor. Amos and Andy made Pepsodent toothpaste a household name, and the first TV shows followed the model with Kraft Hours and Camel Newsreels. But let's not confuse nostalgia for progress. Just because sponsored programming is in some sense a return of an old formula doesn't mean it's unworthy of scrutiny.

I'll be honest: I hesitate here. To continue this line of reasoning, to champion the separation of branding and broadcasting feels equally idealistic and hopeless. Product integration -- a marketing euphemism that oddly equates advertising techniques with schools in Little Rock -- is already too far gone. Most of our sporting venues are now named after beers and banks, and the trend is spreading to schools. News shows' health segments are often bookended by medicinal brand logos, and that Philly newspaper column is most likely just the first. If we are talking radio, on-air personalities have been voicing over car insurance and weight loss plans for years. As evidenced by last year's study of record companies and radio, even the content of most commercial airtime is bought. How do you argue with ads being inserted into commercial programming?

Plus, it's not like Ryan Seacrest is any Edward Murrow. Or that media consumers are naive victims. Most people tuning into FOX generally do so with the understanding that what they are watching a certain point of view. And if the stars of their prime time dramas on that same station all happen to drive the same car make, what real harm is done? We always, after all, have the choice not to watch. Our decision not to opt out of commercial media can be understood as an implicit acceptance of whatever advertising is embedded within.

In response, the standard social critique against product integration -- that ad creep feeds a culture of consumption, that it compromises artistic freedom and erodes consumer choice -- can seem vague and, considering much of this integrated advertising looks a lot like it did in the '50s, ironically old-fashioned. To argue against other product placement feels like fighting back the climate crisis tide. It feels like preaching abstinence to a couple already in the act.

In fact, the best arguments against product integration seem to be on aesthetic terms. That Trump's plugs on "The Apprentice" simply lack finesse. That, compared to say E.T.'s Reese's Pieces, a product that received an 80 percent boom after it was in Spielberg's movie, the Cover Girl banter on America's Next Top Model is just plain awkward. Product placement done well can add realism to a scene -- it might seems strange if Tony Soprano were drinking no-name soda rather than Coke -- whereas product integration usually makes the entire show seem fake.

But let's now go back to the words "trusted" and "important." Not in reference to the Dallas disc jockeys or Jeff Probst or any of the other hosts who shill with such skill, but in respect to the other "trusted" and "important" sources that have given them such a pass. When KZPS made its late April announcement, there wasn't much fuss. Most articles tempered the news by mentioning it had been unsuccessfully tried by three Long Island stations before. Some even likened the Clear Channel move to the kind of sponsorship used in public radio, noting that Kelly Kibler, the sales director behind the Dallas station format change, used to work for NPR's "Car Talk."

But having a sponsor and chatting up about said sponsor are fundamentally different. Even if the hosts, like "Car Talk's" Tom and Ray who, unlike most NPR shows, announce the underwriters themselves, they don't go as far as to say they both have Allstate Insurance and, boy, they sure as heck feel like they are in good hands. Their shameless commerce division is still pretty divided. By paralleling the two stations, mainstream media reduces Clear Channel's move to more of the same. It permits that this latest version of branded content as inevitable and insures similar corporate ventures go even less noticed.

After all, once something "just is," it's easy for us to forget it could be any other way. As with reality television, the more pervasive this sort of integration becomes, the less press it gets, the more normal it seems, the less critical we media consumers become.

This wasn't the case. In 2005, the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild staged a protest, urging a "code of conduct" on the use of product integration in TV . Among their demands for a limit of product placement in children's advertising they also called for "full and clear disclosure for both the visual and aural disclosure of product integration deals at the beginning of each program so the program's audience knows ahead of time that it will be subject to hidden or stealth advertising." The FCC, however, decided it was much ado about nothing, and the story quickly slipped off the news cycle.

As with integration, decrying the media's short attention span seems like a futile fight. Except that it's a story the media might be less and less tempted to return to. It's hard, after all, for the Philly Inquirer to protest branded content when its business section is being visibly funded by Citizens Bank. CBS's 60 minutes might hesitate after Philips sponsored one of its episodes; or any other media outlet faced with online and cable competition when it realizes how much it can make if it gets into the game itself. Spending on product placement alone is projected to top 3.7 billion in America this year. So Clear Channel keeps shilling. Sitcom storylines increasingly involve products. The plugs grow more aggressive. The ads creep on.

But here is also where it gets interesting. The internet and cable, so often fingered as reasons why product integration has become necessary, are also providing some interesting advertising alternatives. Because as old media looks at ways of disbanding traditional ads, new media is increasingly fitting them in. Most news websites preface their videos with short, separate and clearly defined commercials. YouTube recently announced that, starting next year, it will begin playing pre-roll ads to most of their videos. Qtrax, a music sharing site, is offering free music as long as one watches a short commercial first. A broadcasting executive has been floating the idea of a pay per system cable: The more ads you watch, the lower your bill.

Granted, a lot of cable today is as product-plugged as the main networks. And obviously, with blogs-for-hire and corporately produced viral videos, the internet is hardly immune to stealth advertising. But what's important to note here is that opposed to mainstream media, a lot of these new media advertising models emphasize consumer awareness. If you want the video, the music or the show for free, you accept the commercial fee. If you prefer not to be exposed to the sales pitch, you pay for Sirius or HBO or a website's premium membership. It may come with a cost, but at least the choice is yours.

The changing media landscape begs many questions: questions about consumer choice and corporate disclosure; questions that in the best circumstances leave it to viewers to decide the cost/benefit ratio of our advertising consumption and that, in the worst, subvert any choice we have at all.

Unfortunately, these are not questions mainstream media is likely to ask. A call against advertising creep is often marginalized as extreme or anti-American. But the opposite of product integration is not communism, it's consent. And if we can't always have the freedom of such choice, it's important that as media consumers, we at least force the conversation.

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