Is Product Placement in a Digital Age Bad?

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ofcom product placement PFor a Consumer Behavior course I am taking over the summer, in our forum discussions we were prompted with a UK regulation from 2010 concerning product placement in British programming. Put into effect in February 2011, the UK regulator Ofcom now permits product placement in programming only with the prominent display of their designated “P” (alliteration unintended) at the beginning of each segment, as a heads up to viewers that there will be product placement at some point during the show.

As a class, we were challenged with discussing why this was an appropriate time for this new regulation to occur, and whether or not it was justified. Working in Price Per Click advertising for a little while, and an active consumer of online content with all of its delights and woes, I feel elated at seeing trends of how online advertising can become more and more precise in how with available data, content can become more and more targeted for a relevant audience. Of course this comes with privacy concerns from borderline intrusive messaging, but as an optimist I think that it is a very bright time both for marketers to share their content and messages, and for consumers to be open to relevant products in their lives.

Is Product Placement Really a Desire of the Public?

From the verbiage in The Independent, their language suggests that lobbying from advertisers pressured the government to allow for product placement for the first time.  This suggests that the prevailing British preference was to not have outside brand messages interfere with the programming that they are watching, and that they see that their goods and services as removed from the experiences they watch in their shows.  This would be the only point of concern, but I think that this regulatory change was implemented in a historic time that makes this concern irrelevant.

For values towards brands outside of the United States, this situation reminded me of a passage I read (written in 1989) about neighborhood businesses called ‘Third Places,’ much like a local Starbucks or neighborhood bar.  In discussing the French culture of cafés, Ray Oldenburg (The Great Good Place) points out that in their concern for the invasion of market forces, they don’t even name many of their local businesses. He more-eloquently describes their dynamic:

“Naming something is the first step toward advertising it, and the French have always been admirably suspicious of advertising—only in recent years have they permitted it on television.  But the major reason for not naming a bistro is simply that the neighborhood café does not need a name.  Its patron has filled a local niche and is content with his small, steady business.”

For the sake of contrast, I would argue that television is fundamentally different.  Television programming spans distance of neighborhoods, and of course now with the internet, we are no longer limited to media catering to the local tastes and desires in the city of our residence.  We are now able to pick and choose the cultures that we desire to reinforce or be influenced by, so theoretically every channel and programming block will only become more and more relevant to particular audiences.

As part of our course outlining literature on self perception through consumption, “symbolic self-completion” theory and the concept of the “extended self” both suggest that “we are what we consume.”  Since I am not very familiar with British culture, I am unable to make assessments on what types of products Britons use and prefer, but given the backlash of at least The Independent, it seems as though the British (at least in 2011) preferred to live the way they did and use the products they already used.  However, assuming that the nature of the networked world will influence consumer behavior in the UK as it has in the United States, these consumers will understand that new possibilities extend past their own local customs and products, and that to a certain extent they already participate in ‘cultural selection’.  Also, assuming that marketers in Britain are conscious of their target markets, then they will find ways to interject their messages only in the places where they will effectively influence those who will be likely to benefit from that messaging and use of their product.  This should not make product placement much less an issue of unwanted obtrusion, and sure enough it seems most of the critical articles on product placement center only around 2011 when this change first occurred.

As one last point of potential contention, there may also be concerns that product placement would start invading every area of life.  From the same article in The Independent, this interjection of product placement is restricted only to programs other than “children’s programmes, news and current affairs, consumer advice and religious programmes made for UK audiences.”  Each of these prohibited spheres I think are reasonable ‘socially sacred‘ mediums where commercial interests are not appropriate and should not influence civic life, and I think that this was a very tactful decision from Ofcom.

‘Product Placement’ Can Now be a Celebrated Thing

So justifying of product placement aside, I think that on the contrary the cultural lifestyles promoted in media is actually welcoming of product placement, just not in the way we traditionally think.  With nearly every human activity revolving around using products that others manufacture, it is arguable that every form of media is some type of advocacy for a certain lifestyle with certain products.  Whether this is overt or covert is one thing, but the line of what products are intentionally promoted and which are accidentally featured is only going to be more and more blurred.

Hugh-Jackman

Top Gear, from Mirror.co.uk

More recently in September of 2013, the BBC show Top Gear had inadvertently crossed this line.  As a show that praises the craft and even art of various automobile manufacturers, their use of man-made products is very apparent.  In one episode, brands of seats and harnesses were unintentionally displayed, and following from Ofcom’s 2011 regulation they were penalized for their failure to display the product placement P. In the producer’s words “We have never given them prominence over the years because we have different manufacturers for Star in a Reasonably Priced car.  This slipped under the radar.”  This suggests that his use of brands is so engrained, that their use wasn’t even thought of as product placement in his eyes.

More generally, how often do sophisticated crime/law/government TV shows feature a curiously slim aluminum-and-glass laptop, sans a glowing Apple in the back?  Or banner ads with people using a smartphone with a cover, that has a hole for the camera lens distinctively in the far top-left corner?  To identify with their customers, marketers acknowledge that Apple holds a 41.4% marketshare on smartphones in the US.  And how often have you seen younger models in ads wearing a certain type of plain, dual-paneled canvas shoe (TOMS)?  Or a professional carrying a white coffee cup with green highlights (Starbucks)?  These products are simply part of our culture’s lifestyle, and in connecting with consumers, this is a great chance for marketers to help reinforce what their brand’s culture stands for, and how it can fit in with what their consumers already do.  It is only when a brand is overly blatant about it, or it doesn’t match the environment that product placement seems off-putting and irrelevant, but the ‘invisible hand’ seems to ensure that brand use is done tactfully for the most part, not requiring legislation to prevent its abuse.

There has recently been contention around advertising on Facebook, since it is now grown to such prominence to even be referred to as a ‘social utility.’  But as advertising can get more and more targeted, we will have less and less ads shown to us about mortgage refinancing etc., but will have more relevant ads shown to us.  I think YouTube has already proven that targeting is possible, and most video ads that are presented to me on YouTube I have found to be quite relevant… and in some cases even enjoyable!

As long as we as marketers can find ways to take advantage of Big Data becoming more and more available to us, the more effective we can be… and the less annoying we will be to other consumers by taking them out of our line of fire.