Product placement as marketing malfeasance

Trump_1"Product placement" has been growing fast.  According to Brandweek, "the 10 most brand-saturated prime time network television shows showed 9,019 brands, up from 5,821 last year."   

Product placement (pp) was driven by several things.  One of these was the disappearing TV ad.  With people prepared to TIVO their way through a program, pp seemed like a good way to keep promotional materials front and center.  Also, pp helped dispense with the advertising agency, in the process allowing the brand team to save money and regain control.   

But now we are hearing a note of skepticism.  Brandweek‘s Jim Edwards is leading the charge. 

First, Edwards notes, the metrics have been inflated.  The figure used for pp is often $4 billion.  Edwards believes "the actual amount of money changing hands between marketers and various media firms was probably about $1.2 billion in 2005."  The traditional ad biz totals $265 billion.  Product placement gets a good deal of the ink these days, but it is, as Edwards says, "pocket lint" in the larger scheme of things. [quotes and figures in this paragraph from Edwards 2005]

Second, pp is bad for shows. 
It is because it has been devoured by pp that The Apprentice is now in decline.  Christopher Raphael, president of The Really Spectacular Company in Warwick, N.Y., says The Apprentice grew large with pp as the "network and a producer jam[med] as much brand integration and product placement in [the] show as humanly possible."  The effects of the force feeding were clear.  Jeff Greenfield, evp of 1st Approach, says "The [Apprentice] ratings decline is in direct proportion to the amount of branded entertainment."  [quotes by Raphael and Greenfield are from Edwards 2006]

This tells us that there is a muddle in the marketing model.  No one quite expected that pp would damage the pp vehicle, but Edwards, Raphael, and Greenfield suggests its does.  Why?  "Endless, shameless shilling" is not the answer.  After all, these three terms define Donald Trump and his public career most precisely.  The Apprentice was not Macbeth.  (The boys in the lab have run the tests, and this much, they tell me, is clear.) The Apprentice had no artistic or cultural value to compromise.  But shilling still damaged the marketing vehicle (the show, not the man).  If Greenfield is to be believed it broke the show (not the man, apparently).  Hmmm.

Third, pp is bad for brands.   The issue of clutter is now indisputable.  Edwards (2006) says, "Last year, there were 110,322 shout-outs for brands. In 2004, it was only 84,119."   A show like The Real World, could have 30 to 40 brands on screen in the form of furniture, phones, computers and cars.   This is a lot of noise, and it put me in mind of the college student who sold every pixel on his website for a buck.  The price is right.  The plug is pointless.

Edwards says there is now some evidence of pp flight, with "the busiest brands […] trying to find shows with less product placement clutter." {Edwards 2005].  This tells us that the best practice practioners in pp now know the game is up.  They are looking for undistracted circumstances, but they must know that these too will one day fill up.  In other words, pp was a marketing model that could only work in the early days, and those days are passed. 

Four, I think we are entitled to ask whether the model worked even in the early days.  Pp was undertaken without any clear model or test of its efficacy.  People did it because they could.  They did it because they had to.  But they did not do it because it actually worked.  (Coulda…but we had no good grounds for supposing so.)

Here are my own grounds for skepticism.

First, PP works as a simplest act of exposure.
  It assumes that simply seeing the product and or the brand will make the consumer more likely to buy it.  Hmmm.  This strikes me as dubious.  If simple exposure were enough, I wouldn’t be able to walk through a WalMart without leaving "heavy."  In fact, simple exposure persuades me to buy almost nothing. 

Second, the pp model may assume that there is something more than exposure going on here.  It might assume that seeing something on TV gives the product and or brand a certain aura of prestige or credibility or attractiveness.  (This is after all why stamping things "as seen on TV" is one of the oldest tricks in the marketing handbook.) 

If I may use unparliamentary language for a moment, this is simple minded bullshit.  As Edwards points out, reality programming has been the great testing ground of pp.  And what do we know about reality programming?  It was designed to make TV more like-life, that is to say: less glorious, less credible and less attractive.  The point of the exercise was to change the way we thought about things "as seen on TV."  This means there is no halo effect at work here. 

Third, I think this points up the real peril of the pp strategy.  For lots of reality programs appear to reside in Jerry Springer’s neighborhood.  The Real World is a little iffy from time to time.  Starting Over can be especially dubious.  (Yes, I have logged the long hours to say this.)  Come to that, The Apprentice is really just an extended joke about a pompous man with a tremendous comb over, a man with so little wit, grace, humor or intelligence he makes Mr. Burns (of The Simpsons) look pretty good by comparison. 

Are these really the sort of associations we are hoping for.  Down market pomposity…I just can’t believe this is what anyone really wants for their brand. 


It comes down to this.  The marketing community plunged into pp with scant regard for whether it would actually be good for the brand.  And this is, frankly, staggering.  I think we might be looking at one of the great acts of marketing malfeisance of our time.  Now, that Edwards has started asking the hard questions, I wonder if we don’t have a product-placement-gate on our hands. 

And to those marketers who embraced pp because it got them "out from under" the advertising agencies, I say this: there was a reason they worked as brand builders and meaning managers.  They actually knew a thing or two about syntagmatic association, as the linguists call it.  They were good at bringing the product and the brand into exquisitely careful association with other products, ideas, people and places so to engineer the transfer of meaning.  This is what we paid them for. 

Product placement is a simple minded exercise in paradigmatic selection, to use the other linguist’s term.  Pp just tosses the product into the TV show and hopes that it will not be lost in the shuffle of all those semiotic materials flying about there.  But when we do this, there is no real way for us to control the meaning a brand takes on or gives out.  We have effectively abandoned the brand to a random set of associations.  Some of these will be neutral.  Some of them will be very bad.  One or two might serve us.  Good, we are now managing our brand meanings by accident.  Pp is in effect an abdigation of the marketer’s responsibility.  Pp is a scandal no longer waiting to happen. 

Thanks to Jim Edwards for investigative reporting. 


Edwards, Jim. 2005. THE TRACKER: There’s Less Than Meets The Eye In TV Placement.  BrandWeek. December 19, 2005

Edwards, Jim.  2006. THE TRACKER: Coke Forces TV Placement Clutter Debate Into The Open. BrandWeek. January 16, 2006.

Hein, Kenneth.  2006. CAA, Coke relationship no longer H’wood dream
Company unhappy with agency.  The Hollywood Reporter. January 17, 2006.

[all of these require subscription.]

8 thoughts on “Product placement as marketing malfeasance

  1. The Owner's Manual

    I tend to think Donald Trump is more likely to be correct when he says the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice diluted the franchise and pulled down the ratings.

    Product placement is integral to The Apprentice. It’s more interesting to watch candidates deal with major companies such as Sony, Pontiac, and Universal Studios than unknown entities.

    Donald’s show may be the only one that wouldn’t be nearly as good without PP and is not a good example of PP problems.

  2. Anonymous

    Although finding this post rather late, I believe you still pose valid points to serve as a contrasting view of my own thoughts on product placement. Aside from finding the humor in pointing out pp in various media vehicles, I believe pp can be useful if executed strategically (ie. fits the content and target audience of the vehicle).

    Even Neilsen has found that pp must have some value in it, evident in its new system to rate and valuate pp instances. While I value your views and even agree with some of them, I do not believe they give an accurate picture of pp efforts as a whole.

  3. Oliver White

    My views may be slightly biased on product placement as I work for one of the UK’s leading product placement agencies, 1st Place.

    However, I would like to point out that the product placement of brands has proven effectiveness in increasing viewer enjoyment. Research conducted by mediaedge cia shows that product placement increases viewer enjoyment. Therefore, if it’s proven to be beneficial to the viewer than it serves a very valid purpose.

    The placing of brands simply reflects real life…

  4. Pingback: Shared Hosting

Comments are closed.