Throughout the presentations on Thursday, we discussed (thoroughly) adapting media products to a new host culture. We also talked (less thoroughly) about product placement, advertisements, etc. So the focus of this final bit is going to be about product placement.
Though in the US, we often think of product placement as the long-form, 20 second or more, “shameless plug” for a product, place, or company. And many of us, as media scholars, find that particular type of product placement to be insulting and obnoxious. But we also assume that not everyone is aware enough to realize the product placement is occurring. Well, let’s be realistic. The US is not full of idiots (though there are some), and I actually think most people realize when they’re being sold Yoplait on the Biggest Loser or Cover Girl on America’s Next Top Model. Is it really any different from the “regular” commercials? They are just as obnoxious, they’re probably shorter, and they’re just as obvious. More importantly, that type of product placement harkens back to the old days of early television, where programs were almost entirely sponsored by one company or product, thus the item made frequent appearances (see Lucky Strikes for Fibber McGee and Molly). Again, I’m sure these “subliminal” product placements are not as well hidden as we might assume.
It is, instead, the ‘less obnoxious’ type of placement that we should be more interested in. We tend to gloss over the fact that ET was being handed Reeses’ Pieces, that Simon has a Coke cup, and that the cast of Real World just happens to be dropping by Subway for some dinner. These placements are less disconcerting on a surface level, easier to tune out while simultaneously easier to absorb in a non-critical way. We’re overwhelmed with brands, and it becomes difficult for any company to hide them from you – think of MythBusters, and how they tape over brand names. You can still see the rest of the container, and you still know they’re freezing cans of Gilette Shaving Cream.
But more importantly, the idea was mentioned that other countries shouldn’t be concerned about product placement because the practice will just never take. Well, back in the early days of radio (prior to the FRC – later FCC – assigning stations), people were broadcasting without any commercials or sponsors at all. People paid a small amount to have access to equipment and would have their own variety shows, regardless of commercial help. I’m sure they’d never thought that programs would be sponsored solely by one company, that television programs would ever have intensive product placement and shameless plugs (let alone have televisions at all), etc. So to assume that this “American only” idea won’t spread elsewhere – simply because it hasn’t yet – is foolish. First and foremost, assuming it won’t spread to China (as was the specific example in class) because China is less consumeristic is foolish – the real reason is that they don’t need intensive sponsors because the government runs their media outlets. Similarly, you aren’t likely to see product placement on Al Manar because it is largely controlled by Hezbollah.
However, as we see developing countries with liberalizing, privatizing media outlets, you may start to see product placement arise. As outlets are privatized, they need better, faster ways to make their dollars from advertisers, and they might immediately skip to product placement (just as we immediately skipped to one-company sponsorship).
All cross culturalism and cultural sensitivities aside, product placement is likely not going away. And it is likely not just going to be an American phenomenon.