The money shot: why we don’t flinch at movies and TV shows crammed with products – Culture quotient: PT’s take on the season’s most astute and obtuse media – product placement
Product placement has become a bit like air pollution. We may grimace or cough when we catch a whiff, but most of the time we shrug it off as part of the cost of living in modern society.
But lately, brand-name products are more and more likely to make less and less subtle cameos in both TV and film. The new NBC drama Las Vegas gives prominent play to the Mandalay Bay Casino, which let the network film for free. Even less discreet: Last summer’s The Restaurant, which gave as much air time to Mitsubishi and American Express as to the reality show’s handsome chef.
On the other hand, marketers and their kin claim that they’re just defending themselves against clicker-thumbing, TiVo-wielding viewers. Frank Zazza, CEO of a placement-valuation company called iTVX, says placement has even become an aesthetic necessity in this branded society. Imagine, he says, an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation without recognizable products: “They find a clue, and where’s the clue? In a can of soda. They lift up the can and it says ‘soda.’ It doesn’t work.”
What does all this product-enhanced programming do to an audience? Does Johnny Six-pack object to being brand-handled? Armond Aserinsky, director of the Aspen Institute for Media Psychology, thinks most of us don’t even notice. “The bulk of people who watch TV and go to the movies are quite impervious to much of what they’re shown,” Aserinsky says. “It all looks good. And it’s damned fast.”
Assault people with too many absurd placements, though, and they may rebel. Stuart Fischoff, a media psychologist at California State University, Los Angeles, says the mall scene of Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report–crowded with shots of the Gap and other retailers–caused a screening audience to respond with “a wave of outrage and finally a tsunami of dismissive hilarity.”
Even consumer insurrection doesn’t mean that advertisers have failed, says Brian Wansink, a marketing professor at the University of IIlinois-Urbana: “My guess would be within a week, any sort of negative effect–‘That was sort of shameless’–would turn into ‘Dr. Pepper, that’s sort of cool.'” Cultural critic Mark Crispin Miller, author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, agrees: “A placement that attracts a lot of negative attention, spurs a lot of ridicule, etc., still may work at getting folks to buy.” There is, Miller reminds us. “a profitable difference between people hating a commercial and not buying what was advertised.”
Fischoff suggests that our responses to product placement may have something to do with age, since younger people are more accustomed to being deluged by ads. That’s not always true, though. Andy Denhart. 26, who runs a Web log about reality TV, complains, “The Restaurant’s product placement is lazy and inorganic and only engenders contempt from the audience because the products constantly interrupt the story.” On the other hand, Nancy K. Austin, a 53-year-old writer, found the churlishness and psychodrama of the show more annoying than the marketing–at least after catching the episode in which the boss charmed a balky bartender with a free Vespa scooter. “Was Vespa a product placement, too, right along with American Express?” asks Austin. “Maybe it was, but all I could think was: Ciao, baby! I can’t help it; I’m a total sucker for Vespas.”
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