I guess you can say I'm conflicted, at best, about product placements in programming — a strategy that every single broadcast and cable network has embraced during this down advertising market.
This trend worries me. Programmers are looking at product placements largely because they fear that digital video recorders will allow viewers to zap their way past commercials, even more than do right now. Advertisers are considering them for the very same reason, but also as a means to stand out in the clutter of TV ads.
What's troublesome here is that I never hear anyone address the topic of better managing the ad-clutter problem itself. I sincerely doubt the commercial load will decrease if product placements become a big thing. If there's a dollar to be had on the table, it just won't happen.
To a large degree, television has already been dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator, because producing a hit show is economically challenging. Hence, the huge commercial pods.
At best, product placements — from what we've seen in theatrical releases — add a dose of artistic reality. If someone is guzzling down a soda in a movie, we are not at all surprised to see a can of Coca-Cola on the nightstand.
In fact, we barely notice it. So you have to wonder if The Coca-Cola Co. is really getting any bang for its buck in those situations. It's just too subliminal — at least for me — to have any impact at all, let alone send me running off to the supermarket.
And that's the problem. To really not interfere with the script of a particular drama or comedy, the product placement has to be pretty subtle. But if it's too subtle, does anyone really notice?
When Reese's Pieces played an integral role in the charming blockbuster movie E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, the candy maker saw its market share rise from the association. But I would hazard to guess that is the exception, rather than the rule.
The danger here is that product placements on TV shows won't be subtle at all, but quite heavy-handed and haplessly clumsy. That 's the nature of television advertising.
Will we soon hear dialogue in the NBC series "Frasier," in which neurotic brothers Niles and Frasier bicker over the merits of, say, Clorox's Ready Mop, a new product that's being heavily advertised on TV right now?
Can you just hear Frasier utter the line, "Niles, this Clorox Ready Mop is just too good to be true. Do you think it's really safe for hardwood floors as well?" Boring, trite — but it could happen.
People watch TV largely to escape reality. Commercials, unfortunately, wrench us right back into the nagging daily grind of life. They scream at us. They are decibels louder than the programs they so rudely interrupt.
On our very own couches, they snap us out of our revelry and make us cope with the drudgery of household chores, seasonal allergies or — perish the thought — trapped intestinal gas. Or they can make us feel like total losers because we're not all driving green Jaguars.
With product placements, programmers and advertisers have a lot to lose. They have the very real potential to tick off viewers even more than they already have — as the public's current surfing and zapping behaviors attest.
Product placements, if you will, may not be the best "mop-up" strategy for dealing with zapping and the poor advertising environment.