Embedded TV Ads: Here
Comes the Spin
July 25, 2008
Product placement is finally on the FCC's radar, and
pro-industry magpies are out in force trilling a
consistent message: "Back off, Big Brother." We should
not be surprised. Nor is it any wonder that a press
release urging the FCC to take action, issued by 23
watchdog groups, including Campaign for a Commercial
Free Childhood, Commercial Alert, Free Press, Public
Citizen, Common Sense Media, and the Parents' Television
Council, barely broke the sound barrier. Ditto a plea
for regulation by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
Industry is right: we know product placement when we see
it. Those branded props are a growing irritation.
However, product integration is a very different story.
Dialogue, scenes and whole plotlines are being scripted,
not just to promote products, but to inculcate
attitudes, values and behaviors. The WGA calls it
"stealth advertising" and it's a serious matter.
America tired of advertiser-controlled content fifty
years ago, when embedded ads were ubiquitous and
sponsors ran the show. By 1959, quiz show contestants
were being spoon-fed answers to boost ratings. Public
outrage and Congressional hearings led to
network-generated programming and a clear demarcation
between the shows and the ads.
Now, sponsors are back in the driver's seat --
developing concepts, overseeing rough cuts and inputting
dialogue and plot points. In reality television, ad copy
often passes as "real" conversation. For example,
according to the WGA, when contestants on America's Next
Top Model reacted skeptically to a runway fashion show
staged at Kmart, they were called back to overdub
Networks may carp about the slippery slope of
censorship. Yet they are auctioning off artistic control
faster than you can say "plugola." According to Nielsen,
the top ten programs on broadcast TV last year had
nearly 26,000 product placements. Cable's top ten shows
had six times more -- 163,000 placements. This year
American Idol had more than 14 minutes of branded
content per episode, not counting the commercials.
Congressmen are still fuming over clips they were shown
from two episodes of Seventh Heaven, which shamelessly
promoted Oreos cookies. In a parallel case, writers on
the family drama American Dreams claim they had to write
and rewrite an episode to give Oreos a more prominent
These "program-length infomercials" aired during a
national epidemic of diabetes and obesity, when food
companies were under scrutiny for their marketing
practices. Even if consumers were informed that
"promotional consideration" was provided, they did not
know the depth of the scripting, nor which parts of the
plot were doctored to persuade. In fact, research
suggests that when people are immersed in a story, they
are less likely to evaluate persuasive content -- an
enticing prospect for Madison Avenue.
In Europe, embedded advertising is a hot issue. But
here, the ethics and social costs are rarely discussed.
Integration deals are reported as business news. We get
stats claiming that consumers prefer embedded ads (over
more commercials), that teens like product placement (it
reminds them of their ad-saturated reality) and that
product placement isn't very lucrative (then why do it?)
Behind all this is the droning apologetic: "TV networks
are facing economic upheaval caused by ad-zapping
technology and fragmenting markets..."
The "TiVo defense" does not explain why branded products
are proliferating in movies, videogames, novels, songs,
and even comic books. And challenging economic
conditions do not justify a takeover of the public
airwaves, or the unethical doctoring of creative
content. By that logic, we would allow the ailing
airline industry to scrap safety requirements and the
steel industry to sell faulty girders.
As U.S. banks crumble under bad debt that could have
been prevented by prudent governance, the
anti-regulatory spin from media magpies has a sour ring.
America would be wise to consider the real slippery
slope: the risk to society, and especially youth, when
marketers write our stories.
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