Editorial: Product Placement Is a Slippery Slope

Oct 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With TiVo and other technology threatening the advertising model that has provided the economic underpinnings for television since its earliest days, networks have been scrambling to find an alternative to the traditional commercial spot. Increasingly, they are looking to greater use of product placement.
The movement’s chief proving ground has been reality programming, where contestants on shows such as “Survivor,” “Big Brother” and “The Restaurant” have found themselves interacting with everything from SUVs to credit cards to fast food.
The temptation now is to expand into scripted programming, where the first shots have already been fired. Daytime has been the leading edge, with ABC’s “All My Children” incorporating Revlon beauty products into its story line last year and NBC’s “Passions” following suit a couple of months ago by weaving Avon cosmetics into its plot. In fact, product placement is common already in scripted series but until now has been used generally in a way that doesn’t take attention away from the story line.
As the commercial model fades and the economic pressure rises, we can only hope the networks will recognize the need to draw the line. In some cases product placement may be a good fit. But even in the absurd “reality” of so-called reality TV, the excitement shared by hungry houseguests on “Big Brother” when they are lucky enough to win a meal from Burger King can come off as contrived.
It’s frighteningly easy to envision a day when a “West Wing” episode would feature the president writing a memo on an Apple computer and talking on a Nokia phone, or the forensics team on “CSI” using Comet cleanser to tidy up the lab. Should such exercises become the norm, there is a very real risk of alienating viewers and ultimately undermining the medium’s credibility. The reality is that to continue attracting advertisers, programmers must continue to have something to sell-a product that viewers will want to watch.
If the networks don’t self-police, they risk not only losing audience to pay TV and other alternative media, but also attracting additional regulation. The activist group Citizen Alert last week approached the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission with a formal request to substantially beef up requirements for disclosure of product placements, including an on-screen “advertisement” label when a product appears in a paid placement within programming. It may sound far-fetched, but the group has already had some success with a similar campaign against pop-up ads on the Internet.
For programmers, the bottom line is the same as it always has been: Offer quality programming and the viewers will come. Mucking it up with excessive product placements puts the business in very real jeopardy. It is a temptation that should be resisted at every turn.