Product placement on TV is nothing new, although it's been getting a lot of attention lately as advertisers try to deal with rising ad costs, increased clutter, declining network viewership and the growth of homes with TiVo and DVRs that enable viewers to skip past those costly ads.
It's been taken to excess,in my opinion, in some of the reality shows, where the line between content and advertising is becoming more difficult to see. Recent episodes of "The Biggest Loser," for example, had annoying paid segments within the program where the show's characters talked about some low-cal food products which, moments later, were featured in the ad pod. Watching it, I felt as if I had been duped into investing 60 seconds of my time to watch a sneaky version of an ad.
NBC's "30 Rock," on the other hand, handles product placement in a clever way that's not annoying. The show's characters poke fun at the practice by being blatantly over-the-top as they do it. And the American Express ads with Tina Fey blend seamlessly into the show so you actually don't mind watching them. That's good advertising and smart placement.
Viewers have the choice, of course, to zip past annoying product placement or, if it gets totally out of control as it did on "The Apprentice" over the past few seasons, they can simply opt out of watching at all.
Now the FCC is looking into rules on product placement. According to Advertising Age, the ad and marketing industries, through the 4As, the American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers, are trying to head off any FCC action, saying there is little evidence that product placement is harmful or misleading.
I can imagine situations where product placement could be misleading. "The Biggest Loser" example could be a case in point, where viewers might be misled into thinking the product that paid to be included within the show
is better for a healthy diet than other products that did not pay to be mentioned. In advertising, that's fair play. But maybe not, when the message is disguised as part of a program.
Perhaps a reasonable solution would be to have a small disclaimer on the screen indicating what you're seeing has been paid for, similar to the way newspapers and magazines identify "advertorials" within their pages.
Product placement of sorts abounds in newscasts and talk shows. I do lots of it myself for clients. It's called publicity. But in these cases, there's a vetting process by reporters, producers and assignment editors who determine if the story I'm pitching them is newsworthy and of interest to their viewers. It if gets on the air, it's there because it's of interest and not because someone's been paid to use it.
It might make sense for the broadcasters and the ad industry to police themselves, by identifying paid product placement as such. If it gets too out of hand, the FCC might eventually intervene and impose restrictions that would make product placement impossible or impractical.
Update Feb. 8: The FCC has approved a plan to rewrite disclosure rules for product placement on TV. Wayne Friedman, who covers TV for MediaPost, has a great piece with his take on how far disclosure ought to go. Check it out.
Update: The Dec. 31 edition of Media Daily News has a wrap-up on product placement activity on TV and cable. Check it out at here.