Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What's so bad about product placement?

Tom Lee says (via Matthew Yglesias):

A decade ago I might not have noticed the subtly-placed Aquafina bottle in the medical examiner's office in The Spirit; now, trained by decades of carefully turned-toward-the-camera product labels on network sitcoms, I couldn't help but see it. Although I'm sure that its presence still made some small, brand-reinforcing impression, it's a minute one compared to the success that this technique must have first enjoyed. And, in this case, it was coupled with a healthy dose of resentment at Aquafina for its commercial intrusion into entertainment I'd already paid for.
Have you ever noticed how in old movies and TV shows, before people came up with the idea of product placement, it seems like there are no brands or logos anywhere? It's this weirdly cartoonish, smoothed-out world where every soda or beer bottle is a solid brown blob.

Is that because they were making sure that no brands/logos were visible, based on some kind of purist aesthetic?

Or were logos in real life just not as visible back then?

I assume it's a bit of both, but probably mostly the former. Prominent logos have been around for as long as movies have been around. I'm sure that brand identity has affected people's lives more in recent decades, but brands weren't invisible before.

Even before the invention of product placement as a money-making scheme, why wouldn't the filmmakers say: "Hey, let's fill in the details of what people are doing"?

It's so easy to criticize and mock product placement: transparent attempts at subtlety, art infected by greed, etc.

But to "resent" a placed product, as Tom Lee says he does? That strikes me as not just unwarranted but ungrateful.

People love to criticize movies like the Back to the Future trilogy for being full of brand names, but is it so obvious the movie would look better if they'd made it 100% generic? If you're depicting ordinary people in the industrialized world, isn't it only fitting to see them wearing Nikes and drinking Pepsis?

We should be thankful that product placement came along and made the movies and TV more realistic. Just think how drab and oversimplified they'd look without it.

Like this:

(Photo of NYC's Times Square by Jon Ander Rabadan. Photo of cola cans from Wikimedia Commons.)