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Selling our Children – Product Placements

E.T. – The Extraterrestrial was memorable for many reasons. But for the marketing industry, the film changed media forever.

The Hansel and Gretel-like trail of Reese’s Pieces leading the way to Elliot’s house sent sales of those little peanuty nuggets into… ahem… outer space. Suddenly corporations recognized the incredible potential of embedding advertising into movies, television shows, and anywhere else they could imagine. The term “product placement” was born.

Including commercial messages within the feature presentation truly makes the transition from program to ad seamless. Couple that with the implied celebrity endorsement of the can of cola, running shoes, or car, and you’ve created a powerful recipe for brand awareness. And for the icing on the cake, you have one of the most completely receptive and focused audiences to be found. After all, they’ve been fooled into thinking they’re watching a television program, not a commercial.

But not everyone is gobbling up what is fast becoming the crème de la crème of advertising methods. Organizations like the Consumers’ Union and The Center for Science in the Public Interest are troubled at the growing use of embedded sales messages, especially in media aimed at children. The latter group notes that this practice extends beyond movies and television, citing other participants such as video games, magazines, and comic books.

With this diversity, the sophistication of these placements is also increasing. Holding a soda with the brand name front and center is passé. Now products are becoming the star of the show. Check your local video store for the 2002 movie Like Mike. A story about a young boy who dreams of playing basketball, this film is nothing short of an NBA promotional tool. Some of its executive producers are also NBA execs.

Another example is the inclusion of Revlon in a three-month storyline on ABC’s All My Children. The spring 2002 gimmick was even brazen enough to have a fictitious administrator of the makeup company playing the “bad guy.” I guess they believed the old saying, “Any publicity is good publicity.”

In another article, I discussed the issue of young consumers’ ability to determine when a television show ends and when the commercial begins. Obviously, this concern is paramount when the product is the program. This technique is most popular with toys turned into cartoons—for example, Pokémon. As programming looks increasingly like infomercials, it becomes even more difficult for children to recognize when they are being “sold” or “branded.”

Perhaps the most alarming application of these techniques may be found in the sale of consumables that face regulatory restrictions in other media—such as tobacco and alcohol.

Two PG-13 theatrical releases portrayed characters turning to cigarettes for relief in stressful situations. Johnny Depp, playing a novelist in Secret Window, keeps a pack of smokes in his top desk drawer and frequently pulls them out (with the brand clearly exposed) when he’s unable to think creatively or facing danger.

And Ben Affleck’s role in Jersey Girl, has the actor lighting up during a traumatic incident in a hospital setting. He’s also portrayed smoking in other scenes, as is Liv Taylor who plays his romantic interest.

These observations provide increased evidence supporting a study printed in the September 2002 publication of Pediatrics that attests children ages 10 to 15 who watch more than five hours of television per week are six times more likely to begin smoking cigarettes than those who watch less than 2 hours per week.

Another prominent tactic dating back to even before E.T. premiered, is the strategic positioning of billboards and signs during sports programming. This is a prime spot to push alcohol products to a young audience who are frequent viewers of athletic events and are difficult to reach with traditional advertising methods.

With the never ending march of technology, I predict the days of traditional commercials will one day be replaced by completely new sponsorship techniques which will continue to blur the line between programming and advertising. The result will be even more confusion for young viewers.

Like so many elements that make up modern media, parents would do well to teach their children to become Product Placement Detectives. The next time you sit down to watch television or a movie, challenge your youngsters to see how many name brands they can spot. If you’re at home, have them shout out “Hidden Ad!” or list them on a piece of paper.

(We often do this when reviewing movies—not the shouting part of course. We counted well over a dozen in Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London.)

Encouraging your children to do exercises like these will make them more aware of when they are being led down a Hansel and Gretel path of clever marketing.

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