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Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Published: 6/22/2009

Blatant or blurred, product placement is intrusive

AS I sit here confronting another deadline, I'm looking at a can of Diet Coke, a small dish of M&Ms, and this morning's Blade, and it hits me. I'm guilty of product placement. How ironic. The very thing I'm writing about - the blatant placement of well-known products in movies and on television - I'm doing myself in a printed column.

And I don't get a nickel from those guys for going out of my way to tout their wares. However, nearly everybody else does. You can't watch a TV drama or sitcom these days - or watch a flick at the multiplex - without spotting familiar products placed where you can't miss them.

Why use a plain can marked "soda" when you can sell that spot on the table to Pepsi or Mountain Dew?

When the camera gets in close on a laptop on the popular series 24, we see clearly it's an Apple. When Ford sponsored a so-called "ad-free" episode of 24, Ford vehicles were used throughout. Jack Bauer's in a Ford Expedition, trying to stay alive. Sorta like Ford, come to think of it.

When it's time for Simon Cowell to get nasty on American Idol, he and his fellow judges sip liquid refreshment from their bright red "Coke" cups. Is he really drinking Coke? It doesn't matter; he's selling it with every bob of his Adam's apple.

Perhaps no other company has done as good a job as Coca-Cola in branding itself into the American consciousness. How many times have you asked a waiter or waitress, without even thinking about it, for a Coke, as though it's a generic for all cola beverages? If they don't serve Coke, you're likely to hear, "Um, is Pepsi OK?"

Excuse me for a moment .•.•.

OK, I'm back from the kitchen, where I've just fed the dog a cup of Purina Beneful dog food. Now where was I?

The point is that there's a clear distinction between what is obviously paid advertising, say in a newspaper or during a commercial break on TV, and the sometimes not so subtle placement of a product that is supposed to be secondary to the story line.

Often, however, the lines are blurred.

I'm OK with a can of soup bearing the likeness of Shrek. Hey, it's a celebrity endorsement. If it's good enough for an ogre .•.•.

But should it matter what the alcoholic beverage of choice is in the movie, Nights in Rodanthe? It was Jack Daniels, by the way. Kellogg's cereals are featured prominently in many movies. Same for Fiji water.

Who can forget the exposure FedEx and "Wilson" the soccer ball got in Tom Hanks' film, Cast Away"?

And how should we characterize NASCAR drivers? Aren't they simply products placed in very fast and very loud cars? Almost every square inch of their uniforms is covered by an advertising message of some sort. I certainly hope those patches are as fire-retardant as their suits.

For that matter, I think the Kidde fire extinguisher people are missing a real opportunity here. An Associated Press wirephoto last week of the Victory Lane celebration at Michigan International Speedway featured the following product names or logos on or near the winning driver and his car: Cheez-It, Sprint, CarQuest, LifeLock, Kellogg's, Gatorade, MAC Tools, 3M, Dow, Holley carburetors, and Tissot watches.

What, there was no room for the Beltone hearing aids ad?

Baseball, thankfully, has resisted the urge to sell advertising on players' uniforms, though the commissioner's office has been looking into the possibility. Major league stadiums have been, in effect, the world's largest billboards since there were ballparks.

Look at any old and faded photo of ballparks from, say, the 1930s or 1940s and you'll probably see a big ad on the outfield fence for Gem razors.

But at least the field of play, and the players, have remained ad-free. So naturally I'm troubled to discover that the foul pole at Cleveland's Progressive Field now bears the name "Walgreen's" in a vertical array from the top down.

I can just imagine a conversation between two umpires after a long fly ball disappears into the night.

"Was that ball really foul, Jake?"

"I don't know, Clem. I lost it between the g and the r."

First time the Walgreen's sign costs the Indians a home run, I'm switching pharmacies. I worry that it's a natural progression to selling space on the broad shoulders of the players: "Beef. It's What's for Dinner."

Despite these developments, product placement is hardly a new concept. Early television shows in the 1950s featured a girl who danced while wearing a giant cigarette box that left only her legs exposed. I think it was for Old Gold cigarettes. It was supposed to be entertainment, but who are we kidding?

And on the old Texaco Star Theater, host Milton Berle was introduced by a chorus line of gas-station attendants, decked out in crisply pressed uniforms and bow ties, crooning the Texaco jingle: "Oh, we're the men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico .•.•."

Every time I watch a Road Runner cartoon, I make a mental note that if I ever own my own business, I'm going to call it Acme. Not only am I then on page one of the phone book, the Road Runner is beep-beeping on my behalf. Hmmm, Acme Columns Inc. It could work.

If you want to talk about the ultimate in product placement, how about the Goodyear blimp hovering over America's stadiums? If that thing didn't sell a lot of tires, the suits in Akron would let the air out of that big boy in a hurry.

There are advertising and marketing agencies that even specialize in product placement in the entertainment industry. One of them advertises on the Internet that it will strategize with production personnel to produce a "nonintrusive blend of brand attributes, messaging points, product, and signage within creative content."

Alas, some advertisers skip right past the "nonintrusive" part.

It's an annoyance that the Travelocity gnome keeps popping up on The Amazing Race - in a rice paddy in Vietnam or atop an office building in Peru.

And I'm bothered that the lords of the underworld, who would probably be happy with Bic ink pens in real life, preferred to flash their Montblancs on The Sopranos.

But the grossest example? How about the prize awarded to the winners of a reward challenge on the popular CBS show Survivor? After a month or so stranded in the Brazilian highlands, the challenge winners earned a visit to the "Charmin Caf," stocked with a working toilet and plenty of toilet paper. I'm sure they were thrilled, but geez.

So much for nonintrusive.

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com



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