As Hollywood writers and actors call for a crackdown on "stealth advertising" in shows, the practice could soon be taking off in Britain. But with traditional ad revenues in decline, what is the poor advertising executive to do?
Advertisers have always had a bit of a bad rap.
Forty years ago Mick Jagger moaned about them in the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, taking fire at the men on TV who tell me "how white my shirts can be".
Corporate-bashing stand-up Bill Hicks said advertisers were even lower than lawyers... "evil scumbags", no less.
Recently, the government dropped a big, fat hint that ad folk are partly responsible for obesity among the nation's youth, and called on the trade to stop exploiting children's "credulity".
Now, advertising execs are under fire for "product placement" - the practice of surreptitiously inserting a brand into the storyline of a film or TV show.
Product placement is big business, especially in the US.
From big box office hits such as the last James Bond effort Die Another Day - which promoted everything from BMW motorbikes to Omega watches - to TV favourites such as Desperate Housewives - which recently accepted cold hard cash to insert a Buick car into a storyline - products seem to be popping up everywhere.
One US reality show - The Contender - had a whopping 7,500 instances of product placement.
James Bond's the World is not Enough with the BMW logo highlighted top right
Last week Hollywood actors' and writers' unions banded together to protest against these "diabolical advertising fiends" who put pressure on TV writers and producers to hawk their wares.
"They'll stop at nothing to insert their brand names into every TV plotline," said a spokesman for the Writers' Guild of America.
The WGA complains its members now have to spend as much time "figuring out how we're going to embed that can of soda into the storyline" as they do being properly creative.
Product placement threatens to turn "our favourite TV shows into cheesy infomercials", they argue.
Paid product placement is currently outlawed on British TV, though the broadcasting watchdog is weighing up the possibility of relaxing the rules. It is severely restricted in other European states.
What's an ad man to do? If he makes old-fashioned ads that say "Buy this!" he's accused of being an "evil scumbag" - and if he inserts products into a TV show he's a "diabolical fiend".
Why do so many people seem so down on advertising? And if old-style ads continue to lose their impact and new forms of product placement continue to be slated, will there come a time when advertisers find it virtually impossible - or at least very difficult - to promote their clients' stuff?
Benjamin Webb, creative director of Intelligent PR, a media relations company that represents clients from the fashion, art and consumer sectors, can't see what all the product placement fuss is about.
He says the practice is as "old as cinema itself".
"In fact, it can be traced beyond cinema to Victorian music halls and vaudeville, where the stars of the age would wear items on stage that they would subsequently endorse in advertisements.
"It's just that nowadays, product placement has increased in frequency, and is more sophisticated in application."
Mr Webb recently brokered a deal for a client's rugs to feature in the new Julian Fellowes film, Piccadilly Jim.
Context is all, he says. Get that right and there shouldn't be a problem.
"Complaints might be justified if the product placement was genuinely detracting from the screenplay - if, for example, Elizabeth Bennett used the latest Nokia to call Mr Darcy.
"But as product placement tends to feature in and fund the most mainstream of productions, it also tends to be self-regulating - in that it is only of value to the brand if it appears in films which cater for the right market and if the brand is relatively inconspicuous."
The American Idol panel (with a bit of help from Coke)
Steve Read, managing director of 1st Place, which pro-actively promotes various clients' brands to the UK TV and film industries, agrees.
"The key to the whole thing is context.
"The problem with PP in the US is that it is unregulated and it's eating up TV. But PP in the right context enhances a production - because the programming becomes more realistic, with real products, and a company gains because their products are shown in a positive light."
Kalle Lasn, founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine Adbusters, based in Vancouver, Canada, but with a global readership, has a different take.
Adbusters is anti-capitalist, environmentalist and believes that commercial forces are running rampant on the High Street, on TV and "just about everywhere else these days".
Lasn supports the screen actors' and writers' complaints about product placement. But, he says, given the omnipresence of advertising forces today, their protest is "a mere fart in the ocean, if you will excuse the expression".
"The average North American brain is bombarded with 3,000 commercial messages a day", he says. "And now we have messages implanted in our favourite TV programmes too."
Lasn thinks product placement is even more offensive than traditional in-your-face advertising, because it is "clandestine".
Author Fay Weldon was paid to mention a jewellery firm in one of her books
"Product placement is now worked in at the scriptwriting stage. That makes it an even more invasive form of advertising because it gets right into the story narrative.
"That takes us into scary times. We hardly ever have free time from corporation's messages."
But Benjamin Webb thinks there is something missing from this equation, and from much of the criticism of product placement: the small fact that consumers can make up their own minds.
"The fundamental truth is that there exists free will on the part of people when it comes to purchases", he says.
"Product placement is not 'subliminal'. When people decide to buy a product then it is due to a combination of factors, rather than one fleeting appearance onscreen."
Perhaps it's time we stopped viewing advertisers as "evil scumbags" or "diabolical fiends", and recognise that they're just doing a job - and that we, in our buying habits, have the final say over whether or not they did a good job.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
The defenders of clandestine advertising would have us believe that product placement is an innocent and harmless. As always, to see their real opinion, "Watch the money". Clearly they believe it influences our purchasing: why else why would they pay so much for product placement? We should acknowledge our own mental weakness regarding continual brand imaging and oppose its use against us where we can. to quote Thomas Jefferson: "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance".
Donald Stewart, Edinburgh
Ah yes. The old 'freewill' argument. Like the freewill of my young daughter who is bombarded by advertising specifically targeting her age group. I'm afraid Bill Hicks had it right. No matter how much advertisers try and justify what they do, (even calling it creative! for heavens sake) in the end they just recycle the ideas of others to peddle their own rubbish.
Evil the lot of them.
Richard Knights, Oxford
If someone is weak willed enough to be swayed by a product 'placed' into a tacky TV programme, then that is their problem...try watching a bit less TV maybe.
Kevin Ford, Beirut
An absolutely incredible conclusion to draw - particularly from a BBC journalist! Can you really not see any harm in 'interests' being inserted into ostensibly objective shows / sport / news / journalism / art??! Did nobody explain to you the concept of Public Service Broadcasting when you joined the BBC? Perhaps instead of accepting they have a job to do we should look at the fact that ad-men who contribute nothing productive to the human race get handsomely rewarded for their 'job' while much of the world has to scrape a living on no money whatsoever. A ridiculous article; why is it here?
Andrew Bond, UK
I don't buy (if you'll excuse the pun) the poor advertiser line one bit. Ads can and have been insidious. The report says we have the final say? Well then I would say we have had enough of the increasing bombardment. Scale it back and stop trying to invade and associate with every aspect of our lives! How long before we see original content suffer simply because the ad people i.e. those throwing the cash about, would prefer their product to be placed in a setting that will appeal to the largest demographic possible? Have the Orange ads (Yes, I appreciate the irony) not made this abundantly clear? We laugh at them because they represent an exaggerated farce of a practice many find contemptible.
I cannot see what the problem is. We are a nosey race. We like to see what people use when; how are we supposed to emulate our heroes if we do not drink the same as them wear the same labels, smell of the same cologne. Seriously though it is a fact of life. We should just get on with it. It can make a boring film more interesting trying to see how many PP's you can find. Try it with your friends...
Tessa Beeching, Bristol
This concern the media has over the 'Ad man' being the evil party is completely wrong. They are simply answering the demand of their clients. And I wouldn't worry so much about the corporate's advertising techniques because the consumer is getting more savvy towards brands being forced onto them. We're not that stupid or gullible, so the corporates will only have so long before they rethink their strategy. PP might be seemingly getting out of hand, but a new genre of PR is coming through in terms of corporate responsibility. This is where corporates have to - at least appear - to be more responsible in the way they handle their business and it's impact on the outside world. The consumers are the ones with the power here and corporates know it. So advertise away chaps - we're getting numb to it all anyway.
Simon , Guildford
The people who can remain detached enough (albeit annoyed) are the lucky ones... it's the poor fools who are unwittingly convinced by advertisements for whom we should feel sorry.
Andrew Lamberton, Edinburgh, Scotland
Personally I'd be in favour of even more product placement, if the number and duration of ad breaks was reduced proportionally...
Alex Williams, London & NY
I wonder if authors like Clive Cussler and Jack Higgins get paid for the bits of their books which read more like a catalogue for certain items than a novel. It's a real shame, as it destroys the flow of the narrative.
There are more things "missing from the equation." Advertising pays for most of the programming on television and radio. Without advertising there would be far fewer programs for people to watch. So consider the fact that without the product placement there might not be a show at all.
Viggo Jonsson, Creative Director of Jonsson & Lemacks advertising, Reykjavik, Iceland
I think that the problem with product placement (McDonalds) has gone a little (Coca Cola) too far.
It is irritating (BMW) and undermines the credibility (Omega) of the plot.
People who cannot see this, should have gone to Specsavers.
Martin , Northern England
I recently bought series2 of Ally McBeal on DVD and was gobsmacked at the no-holds-barred, blatant minute-long commercial for a chain of coffee shops at the beginning of one of the early episodes. I can't believe this scene made it on to British telly. (I haven't got a telly, so perhaps someone else knows!)
Patrick Bennet, London
It is funny that Benjamin Webb claims that product placement is not subliminal. I used to work for a market research company and a lot of the research we conducted was finding out the hidden nuances that people pick up from an advert. We do make up our own minds, this is true, but too much of our minds consists of messages that advertisers try to feed us about how to live our lives and be happy.
Mike, Brighton, England
As a sleazy marketing person myself I thank you for trying to elicit some sympathy from the general public. ACME PRODUCTS ARE GREAT. Thank you.
Product placement is an excellent idea but only if we force the products to also appear on credits. That way we can play 'Spot the Product' and check the results at the end of the show. It might even make watching X-Factor bearable.
Since no advertisement ever tells the 'Whole' truth about the product being pushed it's hard to have any sympathy for a profession who's highest accolade is to deceive the greatest number of people in a given selling pitch.
Robin McFee, Glasgow UK
As a copy writer for commercial radio ads, I am governed by very stringent rules on how we advertise. At the end of the day, people can make an informed choice and aren't all brainless morons. Advertise away and then let the public judge with their own minds! I don't use half the products and services I write commercials for and I am sure I am more exposed to them than most people!!
Paul Robinson, Swansea, Wales
Better to have product placement and advertising on TV where you can choose to ignore it, than plastered all over bill boards or shoved through your letter box. Perhaps in the future when all TV comes over the internet we can have software that removes such product placement adds as they occur (much like a SPAM blocker).
Advertising annoys the hell out me. If I want to buy something, I will go out and find out about it. You can't look anywhere these days without a poster trying to sell something. With the so called "guerrilla advertising" the advertisers seem to think that the law doesn't apply to them while they go and graffiti their rubbish over towns. Product placement would actively encourage me to stop watching a series.
Vish, London UK
Benjamin Webb says "The fundamental truth is that there exists free will on the part of people when it comes to purchases." Well, to an extent. But that 'free' will operates in a context structured by the commercial and legal forces that shape the market. Adbusters have a very strong point in the sheer number of commercial messages that attack the human brain in capitalist modernity - under that kind of bombardment we are more or less hypnotized: our freedom to make rational decisions is constrained by the density and ubiquity of messages designed to deceive or, at best, distort our vision. The fundamental truth is that advertisers are indeed lying scumbags.
Ed Webb, Philadelphia, USA (ex-UK)
If you say, we as buyers, have the final say, then why aren't we asked if product placement should be there? I'm sure the answer would be no, and if it didn't have any effect on our buying habits then I'm sure these mercenary scumbags would look for another way to influence our buying habits
Brendan asks "...will there come a time when advertisers find it virtually impossible - or at least very difficult - to promote their clients' stuff?" as if this possibility was horrifying. If this did come about then firms would have to rely on producing quality goods rather than hype, which sounds like a good thing to me.
John Hilton, Bristol, UK
The point about it needing to be appropriate is a good one. If I see a 'real' car then I'm going to be more involved with the story than if it's some generic or invented make, and the same for other ordinary events.
The old BBC "mustn't show any brand names at all" policy was bad in that respect. However, if the brands are pushed beyond reasonable frequency it again loses credibility, in my life my friends don't mention the name of the car they drive every few minutes for instance. I don't think that regulation would improve it, though.
Chris C, Aylesbury UK
Advertisers need to rethink their whole approach. All these tactics are employed to persuade people that they want things. However, far better to use market research and the internet to tell people who already want something, how to get it. For example, Amazon.co.uk has very sophisticated advertising technology. When I log-in the site only advertises for sale things that I already know I want!
Robert Sharp, Edinburgh, UK
It's similar to sponsorship in the sports world, where footballers have the name of the sponsor (advertiser) emblazoned on their shirts, and the viewer sees this all through Match of the Day. The difference is that fans will actually pay quite large sums of money to buy and wear replicas of these shirts, which reverses the normal state of affairs. An advertiser usually pays someone to promote his product: with replica shirts, the advertiser is paid by fans willing to wear the shirt.
Alan, London UK
I think product placement is no bad thing. I recall Harry Hill making a mockery of Coronation Street when one of the characters ordered a Stell-berg. That clearly isn't realistic and to be honest detracts from the seriousness of the story line. I agree totally with the context argument. In context, realism is enhanced, thus making for a more believable programme, and not insulting the viewer with made up nonsense.
Chris, Wales, UK
With the advent of Digital Video Recorders (Sky+, Tivo etc) regular advertising can be easily skipped through. I already watch very little "live" TV preferring to record shows and watch at my leisure, skipping through the advertisement as they're shown. By including products within shows it enables the advertiser to have their message broadcast in a way that can't be easily skipped. The eventual result will be fewer viewers, because of the product placement, and lower revenues for the advertising agents.
Richard Crossley, Woking, UK
I do not feel that advertising is necessary. A possibly naive view in today's saturated environment, but we honestly don't need it. The spread of the internet is such that a consumer can find out all they need to know through a small amount of research... and the information they find is likely to be balanced and free from significant bias. The first step should be to ban adverts aimed at the impressionable or the vulnerable (the young, the old, and those in need (e.g. debt) - these are predatory and exploitative.
I disagree with the issue of PP advertising affecting the quality of television/film production. How difficult is it to show a can of Coke on the side or a specific car driving by in the street in these cases? Businesses need to be as strong as possible to remain economically competitive and keep friends and family of the people who have these views in employment.
D Debry, Peterborough
Product placement marketing reduces the entertainment experience for me and cheapens both the product and the film/program. (Unless it's done very well, which is not often the case). I do not think that we should relax the rules in the UK and Europe. The US is a lost cause.
Obren Lekic, Moscow, Russia
One of the roles of advertising is to enhance and confirm the desirability of the produce AFTER purchase - with this in mind, product placement shouldn't be seen as the great evil it is, but as a public service. Without it, people would never be satisfied, and end up spending more!! And if you buy that, maybe I should be in advertising!
With the average person being exposed to around 3500 commercial messages a day, advertisers need to find ways to connect with consumers in more meaningful and appropriate ways. Product placement isn't remotely new. In the 50s entire programmes were sponsored by brands. Equally, consumers are editing out conventional messages more frequently from their viewing either by channel surfing during breaks, or editing out the breaks completely in programmes recorded for future viewing. Provided that advertisers are not using this a way of circumventing legislation on advertising to children, what's the problem? What's wrong with informed choice in a market economy.
David Hook, Frankfurt. Germany
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