December 6, 2008
Product Placement: A Necessary Evil?

I love my DVR for a lot of reasons, but mostly because it allows me to watch more TV and fewer commercials. Using my DVR to fast-forward through commercials turns a 30-minute sitcom into a 22-minute sitcom. Those extra 8 minutes mean I can watch four sitcoms in the time it used to take to watch three. And all without having to sit through a single ad.

I scanned through all the commercials during the November 6 episode of NBC's My Name is Earl, but I still had to watch an advertisement. An entire story line in the episode centers on Joy's (Jaime Pressly) desire for a necklace designed by Jane Seymour and sold at Kay Jewelers. Joy sees the necklace in a television commercial and embarks on a ridiculous quest--involving rockets-- to raise the money necessary to purchase it. Zany antics ensue, and Joy is eventually rewarded when her husband presents her with an "Open Hearts" necklace at the end of the episode.

C3 bloggers have frequently weighed in on product placement, and with good reason. The proliferation of alternate distribution models in recent years has shifted thinking about the ways television content can be effectively monetized. TV is still an advertiser-supported medium, but calculating the value of an ad spot has become increasingly complicated with changes in viewing patterns brought on by DVR, VOD, and streaming video sites like hulu. AC Nielsen provides measurements of audiences who playback DVR recordings (on the same day the program originally aired with "Live + SD" ratings and within seven days of air with "Live + 7" ratings), but since commercials can be skipped with DVRs, "Live +" ratings aren't a reliable gauge of ad watching. Advertisers may not be able to tell how many time-shifting viewers actually see commercials, but they can still be confident people are watching the shows themselves. As a result, audiences are now subjected to traditional commercial spots and ads embedded in TV content.

This new emphasis on product placement is not really new at all. Before current ad models evolved, television programs were rife with product placement and visible sponsor support. As early as 1950, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show incorporated conversations about instant milk into dialogue.

There is a difference, however, between Gracie Allen extolling the virtues of Carnation and Jaime Pressly coveting a necklace from Kay Jewelers. Viewers of Burns and Allen didn't have to sit through--or scan through--a barrage of 30-second spots for other stuff during the course of an episode like Earl's viewers do.

My Name is Earl has one of the highest proportions of time-shifting viewers among network TV shows, so product placement seems like a good strategy for attracting advertisers. Unfortunately, the Kay Jewelers story line just wasn't funny. Product placement works best when products are integrated into an already intriguing plot. For example, characters on Gossip Girl use Verizon cell phones to spread rumors, form alliances, and conspire against enemies. While cell phones are essential in moving Gossip Girl's plot forward, the show is not about the phones themselves.

If My Name is Earl wants to continue with such overt product placements, they should take a lesson from their fellow NBC sitcom 30 Rock. 30 Rock has managed to make product placement funny by mocking its necessity.

In an episode from last season, the use of a Verizon phone manages to satirize the concept of product placement while making Verizon look cool for being in on the joke. This scene had me laughing rather than reaching for the remote.



I remember the episode of My Name is Earl you are referring to and recall there being a Kay Jewelers immediately after the first segment. I agree, the placement felt forced and too obvious. The prize money Joy won in the science fair was probably a subversive (use the term loosely) way of including price/product information into the show. The additon of an actual commercial was a bit over the top and ran the risk of alienating viewers rather than engaging them. Here is a screenshot of the ad for anyone that did not see the episode.


Sometimes product placement is good. But other times it is just plain annoying. If only we could program our T.V's to only show us selected categories of ads. Like for an example as a guy I would never see a tampon commercial ever again.



Product placement needs to be contextually relevant or add value to the content in some way.

Have you seen this great Simpsons parody of product placement with Apple or should I say 'Mapple'


Let's look at it from two points of view,

1. The Viewer. It clearly only works when it's satirical. So that means the brands are humble enough to be laughed at. What benefit exactly is there to the Viewer?

2. The Creator. It stifles creativity. What does being forced to shape the story really achieve? Would you rather be writing your own lines? I bet you 10/10 creators would say so.

Admittedly, there is some social and cultural value being created here, but that's purely because it's satire. What social and cultural value is there for placing a Dodge Charger in a car scene? What value is there placing a can of coke vs a Pepsi in a living room scene?

The question should not be whether product placement is a necessary evil, it's whether we are forgoing the opportunity for the creators (writers, actors, directors, the whole crew) to create a story more valuable both socially and culturally.

Product placement bears a cost to society as a whole, and may not ultimately be sustainable.


post modern product placement - ironically self referencing the placement - is kinda fun.

apple in wall.e?

gordon - social and cultural value - the cost of placement = distortion of creative product.

Cost of no advertising support model that we can live with = absence of economic incentive for creative production. Whilst social incentives drive other forms of creation, big budget tv needs someone to pay for it.

Subscription models obviously one alternative.

If the end user has the money.