You’re watching a sitcom or drama and perhaps two characters are conversing. Then there is a cutaway shot, where you can clearly see the label of a real-life product. Did the sponsors really require that? Most likely yes.
A talk show is on and it’s during the early segment. A host flashes his/her jewelry, abruptly mentions a brand name. (Star Jones, I’m looking at you.) The host takes a selfie with a particular product in the shot. This may or may not be staged — or even allowed by the producer.
These are a few examples of product placement and they may be clever or just plain annoying.
Where Product Placement Started
Product placement has had its origins before the age of television. The earliest example might be in novels, as Jules Verne was lobbied by transport and shipping companies to be mentioned in the serial installments of Around the World in Eighty Days. Early movies displayed products. Radio hosts would pause to promote their sponsors. Soap operas were created with the use of detergent sponsors in mind. Some of the earliest TV shows would use the same format as the radio hosts.
When Product Placement is Appropriate
I have tolerated product placement in a few current programs:
- There are times on morning shows and some talk shows when particular products are mentioned, but given the context and the quality of the products, that might not be so bothersome.
- “Extreme Home Makeover: Home Edition” prominently mentioned its sponsors, but that never bothered me due to what was being done for the home owners.
- I don’t mind the visibility of sponsors in most sports programming, as brands can clearly be seen in professional sports arenas. NASCAR has perhaps the highest visibility of brands, but they have become part of the aesthetic for the drivers themselves. Tennis players need the sponsorships due to the amount of traveling they do.
- Self-promotion and publicity for shows, movies, books, etc. may not too bad in most cases. Now, if any show were to aggressively plug movies for example, I would not like that in any case. Actors need to be present when movies are promoted, on the appropriate programs.
When Product Placement is Inappropriate
Besides the above scenarios, I generally dislike seeing product placement beyond it being used for laughs. Certain forms of it become more and more blatant since the 1990s. I think that the most aggressive kinds can take away from the story being told, they look ridiculous, or they make me roll my eyes:
- From what I gather, “Baywatch” was notorious for its product placement. Particularly, it plugged Pepsi especially hard, even during a fight scene.
- The WB Network (now CW) would plug albums affiliated with Warner Brothers within its shows. Certain tracks were used or artists themselves would make appearances on the shows.
- Basically all reality and a number of competition shows are guilty of this. For example, “American Idol” has shown Coca-Cola products during its broadcasts from the start. Judges can be seen with cups with the brand in front of them.
- A few egregious examples of product placement could be found in episodes of “Smallville.” I remember at least one episode where Chloe mentioned her Yaris. In addition, there were scenes where the logo of the car could clearly be seen. This was of course connected to the advertisement deal in that time slot, and during commercial breaks, one could see flashes of a webcomic plugging the car, as well. I also recall one episode when Clark moved a box on a table in order to call attention to the product that was placed there. The worst example was that one episode which was really just one big Stride Gum commercial.
- I hate how the sponsors for college football games have to have their names in the bowl games. That might be because I am irked by how the players themselves are basically exploited. The colleges make billions of dollars off the collegiate athletes, who are not paid and whose scholarships barely cover necessities.
- One day, I actually saw an episode of General Hospital where a man (a mobster’s bodyguard named Max) was nagging his girlfriend (a lawyer named Diane) about eating heart-healthy foods because apparently, ABC was schilling some tomato-based products.
- At one point, NBC had all of its daytime programming plugging its Earth Week. While it was good to see a network carry an earth-conscious message, the way NBC carried it out was more like one big advertisement.
From the above examples, only the one from “Baywatch” was actually humorous. The instances where product placement occurred in Smallville, while quite clunky, were still somewhat tolerable because the overall content of the show was still quite good. The instances from the other shows I mentioned from ABC and NBC were just terrible. It really sucks when a network is pushing an [advertising] agenda — even if there is a good message in it. The problem is that it bogs down the writing and the dialogue comes off as unnatural.
So basically, when I am watching a program, it depends on the context of the product placement. Some shows are built to promote actors, books, services, etc., but there is a limit to what I would tolerate from them. I feel that product placement is entirely inappropriate for some programs so it should be avoided.
In the next post in this series, I’ll be talking about commercials in general.