When actors spontaneously start talking about Oreos, or when films linger a little too long on a flying jet—long enough to make you wonder why they're showing it at all—that's product placement. Movies have used product placement for years as a financing tool, but now networks have graduated from product placement to product integration.
Product integration is when the product plays a more prominent role in the storyline, perhaps even a crucial one. Advertising has always had a love to hate relationship with entertainment, and Tivo has tipped the scales in the favor of the consumer. Thus, to hopscotch the consumers' trigger-happy DVR skip button, networks are now including prominent product placement in their series. And, in some cases, adding those products into the storyline.
With new developments come new complications. Consider the following ethical minefields:
- Advertisers pay networks to have writers insert a mini-ad within the story, and actors act out the scenes—so both writers and actors are now getting paid to do two jobs instead of just one: dramatic acting and commercial work. Theoretically, that should mean two separate paychecks, but the networks are divvying out only one. The Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild aren't real happy about that.
- What if a writer or actor disagrees in principle with product integration, or disagrees in practice about a specific instance where integrating the product makes the story suffer and breaks the story's emotional connection with the viewer? For a true entertainer, there can be no greater sin than this.
- What if a writer or actor simply refuses to do any product integration? Should networks be able to fire them with just cause? If not, do writers and actors have a right to refuse any product integration practices? Or would the networks effectively bully everyone into doing it for fear advertisers might yank their funding?
- How ethical is it to insinuate these informal ads into programs without informing the viewer about it? If you see an full page newspaper ad, but its layout is similar to a newspaper article, they slap a "PAID ADVERTISEMENT" label on it, so why shouldn't the networks do something similar? (And the answer is obvious: they would alienate their viewers.)
- Finally, what if I bought the DVD boxed set of the series (perhaps years after the show has aired)? Will the original advertisers of the "commercials" in the storyline—captured for time immemorial on DVD—continue to pay the networks any residuals? And if so, shouldn't the actors and writers get residuals, too?
Entertainment and how it's marketed is changing, but integrating products into storylines is a massively bad idea except if the story needs it, or improves because of it. How different would The Gods Must Be Crazy be if the pilot had thrown something other than a Coke bottle into the African dessert? If it serves the story, use it, but don't force it—viewers are smart and they can sense a con. Which is what this is—a con. Advertisers are conning the public into thinking our primetime heros spontaneously mention a product even though it's a deceptively embedded commercial. For advertisers, this is a new low. For networks, I don't know a better definition of "sell out" than that.
What about the flip side? If I'm a network exec and I have a choice to let my series go off the air, or compromise some of my ivory tower ideals... Star Trek: Voyager fans will recall that—two years on the air and suffering rock bottom ratings—Jeri Ryan's Seven of Nine character single-handedly resuscitated that series for another five years. Is that selling out? Well, maybe. But Ryan's smokin bod got viewers watching the program and she wasn't selling any products (apart from her own "brand"). Nothing wrong with grabbing a customer's attention with something flashy so you can do your spiel.
In fact, entire networks have tried to use product placement as their sole revenue stream: the failed Digital Entertainment Network was an online channel to exclusively fund their shows with product placement, with a clever twist: viewers were invited to shop on the website for any items appearing on the network's shows. Want that sweater the character's wearing? Why, here's a link to buy it! Thus, product placement was part of the appeal for watching entertainment on that site. Nothing wrong with that.
Here's Phil Rosenthal, the co-creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, testifying to a House Subcommittee about the perils of product integration: