|April 6, 2010|
|Reality TV product placement has gone too far|
|By Jon Gingerich|
|It’s a sight I’m sadly getting used to. During a recent episode of “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain offers to pay for dinner at an Istanbul restaurant. “Let me get this,” he says emphatically, as the camera cuts to a close-up of his Chase Sapphire Card. |
This is the world of product placement (or “embedded advertising,” "brand integration,” or “branded entertainment,” as the industry likes to call it) and it’s reached such inconspicuously absurd heights that a program’s brands have practically become as identifiable as its stars. A PR firm recently bragged that Apple and Pontiac each received more than $250,000 in media value from their appearances in 20 sequences during the “24” season premier. Isn’t that what commercials are for?
It should come as no surprise that reality TV, the lowest of the low in terms of mind-numbing, knuckle-dragger entertainment, is a cesspool for blatant product peddling. A project manager on “Project Runway” touts the features of his Hewlett-Packard TouchSmart computer with the nonchalance of an Amway salesman. Coke received an estimated $12 million in media value for its gratuitous placement throughout “American Idol’s” season premiere.
According to recent data from Nielsen Media Research, all save two of the top 10 shows with the biggest occurrences of product placement are reality TV programs. The worst offenders? “The Biggest Loser,” “American Idol,” “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” “America’s Toughest Jobs” and “Deal or No Deal.”
It’s been a mainstay in film for years, but by all appearances the medium has stooped to new commercial lows in order to accommodate today’s noticeably ostentatious marketing tactics. In Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut “Whip It,” character Maggie Mayhem preps a rollerblading teammate by advising her to try Cover Girl mascara Lash Blast. Off screen, Barrymore is a Cover Girl spokesperson. Unsuspecting audiences are now subjected to narratives that have not been written to entertain or inform, but to accommodate a preexisting financial transaction.
It’s taking on other forms of entertainment as well. There are agencies that now specialize in embedding marketing campaigns into popular artists’ lyrics and videos. This is a practice that pales the jingles of yore: albums are now being altered (and sometimes written entirely by marketers) for the sole purpose of accommodating brand messages.
Most agree that with the advent of new, increasingly interactive media like the Internet, TiVo and mobile applications, product placement won’t be a cottage industry for long. The Screen Actor’s Guild estimated that product placement in films went up 44% in 2009 from the year before. PQMedia, a consulting firm that tracks the product placement market, reported that product placement spending grew at annual growth rates of 40.8% from 2002 to 2007, and expects it to make as much as $10 billion by the end of 2010.
One such company, which recently celebrated its 5,000th film placement, summed it up best in a February press release: “Having characters use real products lends an air of believability to a story. For the studios, the use of brand names can carve anywhere from $100,000 to well into the millions of dollars off a project’s budget.”
I know what you’re thinking: “The marketing landscape has changed. We have to engage consumers on a new level if we want our clients’ messages to stick.” I don’t care. The FTC should begin regulating the back-alley transactions that occur between marketers and producers; they should crack down on the practice of turning entertainment into one giant brand trough just like they did last year when they mandated more disclosure for ad endorsements and testimonials. I don’t care how much money it makes the studios; I don’t care how much money it makes the marketers. Yes, I’m saying it: enact tougher disclosure laws for paid product placements, or shut the practice down altogether.
Writing TV and movie copy for the sole purpose of accommodating brands disrupts the 4th wall that exists between audience and narrative. It insults our intelligence — it makes us feel ripped off — to know we paid for a movie and got an infomercial instead.
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