Not that long ago, I had a discussion with a seasoned veteran of television writing who was not happy with orders from above of blatant product integration in the show that person was writing for.
It's been a common and growing complaint, so much so that the Writers Guild of America East recently released a statement calling for regluations of integration and inclusion of actors and writers both on the process of deciding appropriate uses of product integration and also to be included in the benefits.
According to a story by Jon Lafayette for TelevisionWeek, the writers called for a distinction to be made between "product placement" and "product integration." In this case, they are arguing against the use of blatant product placement versus natural product placement, an issue that has been close to our reserach over the past year, particularly through the research of my C3 colleague Alec Austin.
Some television programs allow for product integration, using the WGA distinction, more than others. Particularly, it seems that reality television shows or sporting events are not as badly hurt by the extensive use of sponsor names because it doesn't seem as absurd. Both are already controlled environments and in fact gain their narrative drive from that contrived situation, whether it be a game or a reality competition.
However, in fictional dramatic or comedy series, product integration can easily destroy the viewer's suspension of disbelief in a way that detracts from viewer involvement and the perceived aristry of a show.
Yet, episodes of Seinfeld and Sex and the City prove that episodes can have a particular brand name or product involved deeply in an episode without detracting from the power of the show, if it is not something imposed on the writers but instead something the creative team is a part of from the conception.
So, I don't see the WGA's call for inclusion as a threat but rather a great benefit to the future of effective product placement. When creative teams are saying that they see the economic reality of product placement but only object to it being done poorly, it seems they've found a mantra that the entire industry should get behind.