“It all starts with a coffee machine”
This is where it all starts. With a coffee machine on daytime TV. But it’s going to get so much better. Just wait until people on TV shows start having conversations about cars and their mileages, and about the health benefits offered by certain brands of cereal. You’re about to witness a spectacular evolution in the UK, although the people who consider it evolution all work for advertising agencies.
It’s the start of a slippery slope. When they start to realise there is real money to be made in product placement there will be a push for much more. In the US, we’ve been the champions of the free market for so long that we’ve lost sight of where the barriers should be placed. Product placement has continued to grow over the decades and now advertisers are doing everything possible to get their message out.
But a line was crossed when product placement was allowed on TV news. The news is already potentially compromised because four or five companies control the majority of what we see and read. How likely is it that ABC News would do a report that reflects badly on Disney, its parent company? Similarly, would NBC run a story that paints Universal in a bad light? There’s already potential for compromise before ad dollars come into the equation. We have a show here called ‘Morning Joe’, a news talk programme sponsored by Starbucks. So if a really terrible thing happened in Starbucks, would they tell the story?
Product placement is nothing new. You see it in films by Thomas Edison, who would place ads for his own products within the films. You’d see somebody riding a subway train and all the ads on the walls were for Edison’s own things. But digital recorders that allow viewers to skip ads have made product placement far more important. Right now it’s a $3 billion-a-year business in the US; in the next three years it’s going to become a $6 billion-a-year business, simply because most of us are fast-forwarding through ads.
TV in America, unlike Britain, has always been a delivery mechanism for selling products. The first shows were created and delivered by ad agencies. The creative people were making the programming for the sole purpose of having you buy soup, soda, a new car, whatever. In the United States, if you even tried to float the idea of people paying towards public broadcasting, people would go crazy.
On some TV shows in the States, a character will suddenly start talking about a product and it will have nothing to do with the plot. I’m blown away when I see that. But I’m a realist, too. I know we live in a world where people drink Coke, drive Fords and wear Levi’s. The key is realism. I don’t think these products should be banished from TV, but we shouldn’t have close-ups of cans or zooming in to logos. The process affects creativity and changes content. You have to draw a line and let the creative people be creative.
The thing is, product placement really does work. Half the people who saw ‘Super Size Me’ walked out of the theatre saying, “I’m never eating that again,” but the other half said,“I’ve gotta get some right now!” I called 600 companies to try and secure funding to make my new film and about 580 of them said “absolutely not”. The 20 companies that said “yes” were the ones willing to relinquish control and take a risk. I think they saw an opportunity and realised it could actually pay off. The other companies didn’t want to be in because they were given no control over the final cut of the movie. Ninety per cent of people who watch my new film want to drink a ‘Pom Wonderful’ [who spent $1 million on product placement in the film] right afterwards.
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