The ethics of product placement

Nebenzahl and Jaffe (1998) called product placement “the least ethical form of advertising” because of its concealment and obtrusiveness. Other critics argue that the public will eventually be unable to distinguish advertising from news or entertainment. Because advertising largely supports media, traditional media outlets offer little, really no criticism of product placement.

Good Will Hunting
Dunkin’ Donuts in Good Will Hunting

For their part, consumers generally have positive attitude toward product placement because, they say, it adds realism. Maybe. Let’s also consider, however, that product placement threatens artists’ freedom in creating and in expressing their ideas.  So I’d like us to consider the moral experience that a film or narrative attempts to shape or provide. If we ask ourselves, does the work cultivate our capacity for moral thinking (think “Breaking Bad”), or does it deform them (think, again, “Breaking Bad”)? As we read, view, or listen to an artistic expression with an eye (or ear) toward its ethical dimension, what is the appropriate moral response? What is the moral value of the expression, and how has product placement or, more broadly, commercialization and commercial colonization undercut, eroded or even prevented that moral exercise? Are our very imaginations becoming commodified and commercialized? How branded have our worlds, even our imaginative or creative worlds, become?

Here’s a different way to look at it: Can you even imagine a world that is not branded, one where the values associated with brands are different than what the brand purveyors would like us to believe?

In terms of product placement, we need to ask ourselves are we better off, are we morally enriched, by such an unchallenged and increasingly supersaturated logic of commodity culture? Of pervasive, even ubiquitous product placement and “brand integration”? Have we confused freedom — real freedom — with merely “consumer choice”? Have we ratified an unbearable lightness of being — an existence so light, so insubstantial, so dependent on a branded view of social worth and “happiness? Are we first citizens, or consumers?

If these questions are a bit too heady, start with the more direct question of whether product placement be taken too far, or done in such a way that it is corrosive or cannibalistic of a greater good, perhaps an artistic or aesthetic good? For examples of this as a possibility, think of the Nascar-like advertising and product placement in TV shows like NBC’s Chuck and in movies like Herbie Reloaded, Dodgeball, Talladega Nights and Austin Powers. To think of this in terms of a spectrum, and with product placement increasing, does culture and artistic expression risk folding in on itself, or being completely hollowed out by commercial interests? Are distinctions between advertising and news blurring? Between advertising and entertainment? Between advertising and culture?

In light of these considerations, do you think there should there be an ethical code governing product placement?

For example, should disclosure should be required? (Should advertisers, marketers and brand “integrators” be required to disclose what’s been bought, traded or donated for “special considerations”?)

Give me your comments, and more than just a quick toss-away paragraph. I want considered thoughts and reflections on this. It’s our culture; what do we want it to say or be?

Your comment due by class-time Friday, March 21.

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20 Responses to The ethics of product placement

  1. Gabby Guevara says:

    I think that product placement has not harmed our generation. In fact, I think that this form of advertising can be very beneficial for the particular brands being placed in the media. When executed correctly, which could be either a low extreme of very subtle, or a high extreme of very obvious, I think those particular products send subliminal messages to the consumer of media. This can result in that consumer thinking more about the product, which would make them that much more inclined to purchase that product when out and about.

    I do believe that our worlds, including our imaginative world, has become severely branded. However, how could it not? Everywhere we look, we can find media advertising a certain brand, or we can see the particular brand itself displayed to the world. Product placement is not creating a problem in that aspect. It is merely continuing the trend that has been occurring for decades. When product placement occurs discretely, it is still an effective, indirect form of advertisement and adds realism to the medium it is presented in. I do not think that this is putting creative expression at risk because these brands are what have become familiar to use, they are natural occurrences to us, but that does not mean that they are taking over our insight to imagine anything greater and new.

  2. Ciara Stephens says:

    I think product placement is taken to far when the medium revolves around the product, but I think that when product placement is done subtly, it adds realism. People are familiar with brands, so they can relate to the use of product placement. I think if you can present familiarity through advertisement, you are more likely to draw in consumers.
    At the same time, I feel that product placement can threaten artists’ expression of their ideas because it seems like the only way they can be seen and heard is through product placement. I find that a little saddening because it does limit our creatively if you must choose between popular brands and your own imagination. I don’t think that product placement completely destroys creating and imagining different and new things. It just creates a choice as to whether we will go for the imagination or brands. I don’t think product placement is the main problem here. I think the problem is that more people are choosing product placement over the completely free expression of ideas because product placement can be an effective form of advertisement.
    I believe there is somewhat of a blur between advertisement and culture. There are certain brands that we associate with our culture because they are familiar to us and we have grown up with them, not because they are a form of advertisement. Or maybe that is what brand producers want us to believe. It is a scary thought, to me, to think that positive things I believe about advertisements, thoughts I believed I created on my own, may have been constructed by product placement.

  3. Rebecca Frantz says:

    I don’t think that product placement is really a problem in our society. Most things in our culture are branded. We were all born into a society where we cannot go a day without being surrounded by brands. Branding has become something normal in our everyday life and product placement is a part of this. When we see characters in film or on TV using product placement, it helps to add a sense of realism to what we are seeing. I think that this helps people relate more to what they’re watching and in a sense become more connected with it.
    Although product placement does help boost consumerism, I also think that it takes away from film as an art form. It becomes another thing in our culture that is “branded” and can limit the artistic voice of the film. However, I also think that in most cases we have become so habituated to seeing different products and brands every day that we often fail to notice them. For example, Starbucks products are something that can be found everywhere in America. I have become so used to seeing Starbucks cups and the logo everywhere that I am not even consciously aware of one when I see it. The first time I watched Fight Club, I failed to notice that a Starbucks cup can be seen in almost every scene. I think many corporations are probably trying to increase consumption of their product by using subliminal messages, but research has proven that subliminal messages do not work.
    Overall, I think that product placement is neither good nor bad. There are pros and cons to using product placement, but I don’t think that it is bad for us. I don’t necessarily think that there should be an ethical code governing product placement unless corporations abuse this privilege.

  4. Michael Earhart says:

    When we consider product placement, there are two main sides to the argument. One side says it’s fine because it adds realism while the other side is concerned that the “branding” of our society limits our creativity. Both sides are right. If it is such an integral part of our society, does it need to be governed by an ethical code?

    However, consider the situation of a low-budget film maker. Currently, he doesn’t have the funds to finish his movie due to a donor withdrawing his funds over a disagreement. Assume for the sake of argument that he cannot find any other donors. He has two options, either scrap the film all together or consider product placement. In this situation, we may argue that if he submits and allows product placement in his film, he detracts from the artistic quality of his film. But, compared to the alternative of abandoning the film, we could argue that the net artistic creativity is still higher. Granted this is an extreme, so let’s consider a more common-place example. Regardless of whether we agree with it or not, several films incorporate product placement. Without product placement, films would be costlier to produce, and therefore would be costlier for consumers to see.

    In a capitalist society, entrepreneurs are essential. One of the ways they cut costs is through product placement, which likely does have affect the way we perceive the world around us. Product placement and advertising are integral parts of our society. We have to decide how we feel about that effect. If we decide it does in fact have serious repercussions, then we should have an ethical code regarding product placement. However, I believe that, consciously, it goes largely unnoticed. Combined with its ability to lower prices, it seems to do more good than harm.

  5. heyahlauren says:

    I think it’s difficult for me to say whether or not product placement has harmed our generation because that’s all I’ve known anything apart from everything being branded. Until this class I never really paid much attention to seeing brands on everything because it’s what I’m use to seeing everyday. If I were watching a movie and one of the actors had Starbucks, I wouldn’t think anything of it apart from maybe wanting to go get a drink from Starbucks myself. If it’s an obvious product placement like in the Wayne’s World video, I would notice but most likely laugh it off and not think of it as being bad.

    I don’t think branding has taken away any of our freedom because no one is saying where you have to shop or what you have to buy when if they’re influencing your choices, you don’t have to conform to them. Clothes are the best example for this because even it a clothing line doesn’t have a trademark logo on it, it can still be considered branded. People shop at thrift stores or the Salvation Army because they want “that look,” it doesn’t always matter if it has a logo on it.

    I don’t think putting an ethical code in place to govern the use of product placement would change much, nor do I think it’s needed, because only people who sought out the information would take it into account. Advertising and product placement are a major part of our society, especially in such a technology savvy generation, which makes me believe there is no need for a code regulating it but if there were one – it wouldn’t make a huge impact.

  6. Katie Farmer says:

    I agree that product placement can add an element of realism to the visual media that we experience. However, I have often felt cheated out of this “realism” due to the conscious efforts to avoid product placement. For example, if a character goes to a vending machine, I expect him to buy a Coke or Pepsi, not some random generic. I think that the act of product placement has given people a bad taste for the idea. Therefore, it seems that film and television try to counteract this sense of consumerism by providing their version of popular products. I have seen food and beverages on screen resemble known products down to the color of the packaging. However, if you look closely you see that it is not the name-brand product. This is a strange phenomenon in my opinion. Why would they try to conjure up the image (and status?) of a certain product without letting us know that it is the real thing? I think that product placement as far as using real items that are in everyday life can be beneficial to a program. The downside exists in that television and film can then be turned into feature-length advertisements. This can be avoided by avoiding using the brand as the focus of the entertainment. Now that I think about it, I find it a bit ironic that we desire for film and television to include elements of reality when their main purpose is for us to escape reality.

  7. Jayme Neitzel says:

    In my opinion, product placement is not harmful to our society, especially if done in the correct way. It can challenge one artistically rather than restrain them. Many situations in music videos, TV shows, and movies are unrealistic or impossible, yet people buy into its reality. If product placement is treated in the same way, the audience will buy into the associations and ideas that are placed before them. An artist can create a scenario in which a product seems to fit perfectly even though it really should not be there. This creativity from the artist is broken, however, when the product becomes the center of the audience’s attention.

    I do not believe that the lines between advertising and news are blurring, but there are gray areas appearing between advertising and entertainment. It’s hard to see a sports game without noticing logos on the uniforms. Their sponsors what their logo to be seen by fans who, the sponsors hope, will in turn buy that brand of product. Many music videos now include product placement and the first thought I had when watching them did not revolve around the product and did not draw my attention away from the entertainment, but upon watching some of the videos later, I realized that subconsciously I associated the products with the music. Even though the music videos were not commercials, the product placement was done in such a way that I noted the product was there but did not focus my full attention on it. So overall product placement has not and will not be harmful when an artist takes on the challenge of creating a scenario where the product seems to fit in place but you are still are aware that the product exists.

  8. Louie Spivak says:

    Having spent time evaluating my opinion on product placement, I now recognize that my original acceptance that I expressed in class stemmed from apathy. I had not devoted any time to determining my ideology on the intrusion of advertisement into entertainment and into culture in general. However, the exposure of product placement’s pervasiveness in class has reformed my views.

    I opposed product placement because advertisement promotes consumerism, and our entertainment has enough persuasive value as it is without also serving as a vehicle for promotion. It does not distract from the artistic quality of entertainment, as the ironic use of product placement in programs like “30 Rock” can add to the content. However, restrictions of some nature must exist for limiting the expansion of commercialism. I do not support government intervention, but I do believe individuals should work to increase awareness.

    My fundamental objection to product placement centers around my disagreement with the western philosophy of consumerism. Our society holds spending as a religion, viewing poverty and a lack of material wealth as a sign of being lower class. Granted they do not have certain items that others may consider “necessary,” but excess is not the road to happiness. Greed and gluttony has led to the downfall of many civilizations, the Roman Empire being an obvious example. Product placement serves as a stepping stone to the complete commercialization of our society, a step that we should strive to avoid.

  9. alexbrizzi says:

    There are times when I believe that product placement has harmed our generation such as making big brands (iPhone, expensive clothing, etc.) seem like the most important thing there is. It has made us become materialistic and envious of those who buy into the brands. Based on common fate, when we seen famous people modeling those brands, we want to buy them because we want to be that person. On an everyday basis, big brands like that are forced down our throats through billboards, television shows, and movies but most of the time we aren’t noticing.

    In other ways, it hasn’t been harmful because we have also become a generation that searches for the undiscovered. What I mean by that is many people are interested in breaking out of the typical mold and creating a brand for themselves.

    Product placement is important though because it is the main way that producers can market their products and even save a product such as Ray Bans or Smith and Wesson.

    I don’t think that there should be an ethical code governing product placement because I don’t think it would be very helpful or effective.

  10. Jake Emche says:

    I believe there are both pros and cons to product placement. As a society, we have put ourselves into a position where everything that surrounds us is branded. Product placement was not what started this trend, but it did assist in the movement of our society being so influenced by branding.

    Sometimes product placement takes away from the ideas that artists are trying to get across, which is certainly a problem. People who view things that involve product placement may become more concerned with what brand of shoes a famous actor is wearing instead of what message (in the eye’s of the artists) is supposed to be learned from the movie,television show, advertisement,etc.

    At the same time, I think product placement allows for viewers to make themselves familiar with what is being portrayed. This may allow viewers to feel like they are in the same situation themselves as where the product is being advertised because they may have a product similar to what is being placed in the setting or may want to be like the person or thing associated with the product. Also, product placement has allowed many companies to increase their business or remain in business.

    I believe product placement is causing the distinction between advertising and culture to become more blurred. People are getting so adapted to product placement and may not notice it as much as they used to, although it is still very effective. Society as a whole has become so used to branding and product placement all around us that we accept it as part of our culture.

    I do not think there should be an ethical code implemented for product placement. I do not think there is anyway it could be effective due to the fact that branding and product placement are in so many parts of our lives. I believe a lot of people would not even really care if lists of companies whose products were being placed in advertisements were presented by the creators of the advertisements, movies, or other similar things that have product placement in them. I think if an ethical code for product placement was made mandatory, it would not be very successful at all.

  11. Vickie Tallent says:

    In all honesty, being around for quite a while, I rather enjoy seeing the actual “product” as opposed to a generic copy. It adds realism. Yes, it takes away from the imagination, but no more so than going into Wal-Mart buying a “Dr. Thunder” softdrink, when we know it’s their brand of Dr. Pepper. Over the years I’ve thought it rather cheesy to see the artwork of a brand and not the name. In fact if I’m watching something with a group of people, our attention is drawn to the “unproduct”, and making remarks like, “oh yeah that’s supposed to be Starbucks”, or whatever. Why make it a big deal.

    In another viewpoint, why is advertising in movies and TV programs, any different than the Superbowl commercials? To me it isn’t. Marketers are trying to get their products noticed by a large mass of people. Why do a lot of us watch the Superbowl, especially if our team isn’t playing, for the commercials. I don’t see a need for “disclosure”.

  12. Rick R says:

    I consider the act of product placement in movies and television to be a negative thing, not merely because it represents a slipshod attempt at marketing products, but because it also represents to me, the degradation in artistic expression. I would go even further and say that product placement could also be considered a manifestation of our ideologies, and that these too have been degraded as a result of product placement.

    Media has served as a medium for art and creative expression since its very conception. I believe that art found in media is meant to bring us to a deep level of experience, which is more than any sugary beverage or pair of sneakers could ever do on its own. This is why it does not make sense to me that product placement has become common in movies and television.

    True art is not the kind that can be infused with commerce. I believe that society has lost sight of our artistic impulses and traded them in for our materialistic and consumerist impulses. As product placement becomes standard in movies and television, we need to ask ourselves how much is too much. And what does this say about our beliefs and views. For me, art is more than just a form of human activity; it is an expression of human consciousness. Therefore, I believe product placement that is found in art forms, such as movies and TV should be examined through this lens.

    This leads me to believe that product placement represents a new kind of ideology—one that involves consumerism. For those that might argue against this, simply look at the facts. Consumerism has become sort of a primary language these days as most people are able recognize fast-food symbols or TV logos more readily than national or political symbols. Also, consumerism involves our participation in something that is beyond ourselves, which is intrinsic of any ideology. We are making an effort to purchase these items, therefore involving them into our lives, and we are accepting their appearance as a form of art. If product placement is allowed to be used with no restriction, then we are inadvertently allowing consumerism to become part of our being, which I would imagine many would find to be an ethical problem. It seems to me that we are now inhabiting a world of brands, instead of a world of creative expression!

  13. rowarrick says:

    I agree that we should develop an ethical code to constrain product placement. While it is clear that both the production companies and the advertisers receive some mutual benefit, the third party, the viewer, is given no choice to absorb the material, and its effects are more ambiguous.
    When I see product placement in a TV show, I either wish it was not there or I accept it with slight approval. If it is handled in blatant manner I am disgusted by it. If it is handled in a more subtle manner, the less distracting it is. The less distracting, the more realistic, at least in some cases. I guess though that the more subtle it is done, the less I will receive it without being conscious of it.
    In the TV show House of Cards, which portrays the political world of Washington D.C., product placement of TV news networks adds to realism. It is cool to see these imaginary officials appear on ABC and CNN. The apple logo on Kevin Spacey’s computer is more blatant and becomes obnoxious.

  14. annakate shepherd says:

    I do not believe we should develop an ethical code to monitor product placement. I believe product placement is mostly a matter of opinion. The consumer has the ability to chose how much they buy into the creation of product placement. There are situation where product placement is jumping off the screen or advertisement right in our faces, yet often times we still let it have the same effect on us. If we are so clearly aware that product placement is being used I think it is up to us to limit the effect it has on our decision making process, not the government to create some type of code to control it. We live in a consumer world. without some product placement would any items have the ability to sell? I feel that much of creating a fruitful economy goes back to product placement. We need items to sell in oder to keep the market stable, and if we take product placement out of the equation many items would lose their appeal. I do not feel this is a moral issue, i think it is purely good work ethic in order to keep the economy alive and running.

  15. Olivia B says:

    From a consumer standpoint, product placement can be an annoyance when used excessively. However, being a marketing student, I also see product placement as a great tool to effectively market a product in a way that doesn’t necessarily interrupt the artistic flow of the episode or movie. To me, seeing a certain brand of car or a drink does not majorly influence my decision on whether I should purchase that product.
    Even when there is no product placement, there is usually a very close imitation of a brand substituted for the actual brand. Typically that imitation sticks out more than the actual product would, due to a certain level of absurdity used in designing/creating the imitation so that it doesn’t violate any copyrights. So in the end, we still think about the brand that the show or movie is trying to imitate. If we’re going to be thinking about the product anyway, why shouldn’t the shows or movies be making money off of it?

  16. Liz Bradford says:

    I feel as though in this day and age thy product placement should be used as a good thing. I see product placement as common fate. When I see someone using a specific product on a tv show or movie I relate that product to being a little more like them. I do believe though that at times product placement is taken too far, and should not be a replacement for a companies comercials or physical advertisement. I also don’t think tha movies or shows should base themselves around a product extremely- such as Chuck and subway. Product placement is inevitable and helps companies make money as well as the production studios. It can be very effective and useful if used in the right way.

  17. Chantal Guerrero says:

    When I had my first expierence with product displacement in a movie, I thought to myself “Wow, look she’s drinking Sprite”. And then I continued to see different shows and movies use these brands that we all know and love, and I would think to myself that it made it more realistic or more trendy towards actual life. I found amusement in seeing tons of ads I recognize in movies and tv shows, and I still do! It, one could say, makes you feel like your in a part of the show cause you know what that ad means or you’ve eaten that specific food or drank that drink! I still enjoy and find it entertaining to see those things in movies!
    But, maybe I didn’t find the reasons as entertaining! Where is the line drawn between being entertained by a movie or show or just trying to be sold to or just everything being an advertisement! Movies and tv shows are actors, directors, and viewers way of being taken into a new reality and virtual world! I guess I’m still wrestling with the question of where the line is drawn with product placement in movies and shows! By using product placement, it is diminishing ones creative abilities and ones ability to just freely enjoy the movie without being sold to or manipulated! I do foresee a future where the line is going to be very slim and that is not okay!

  18. Alyssa Maker says:

    When I first really understood what product placement was in contemporary persuasion, I thought this is okay. I did not see anything wrong with it because it is apart of our culture today as a society. When we see products advertising in movies, it is normal to me because those are things that we are familiar with as a society. We are more inclined to look at things or watch things that we are familiar with.

    However, after reading this blog, I started to think about it a little bit more. I don’t think that that we need a strong ethical code for product placement because product placement has become entwined with society. I do however think that we need something to stop making it the most important thing in society. I do think that it has taken some creativity out of our society. For example product placement is not just in movies, but also video games. Most video games like Uncharted 3 use product placement. They used subway in there game. I believe that video games require the most creative thinking of all, creating a different world and new species, and instead of the creativeness flowing, we stick products in there to sell the game because that is what society is most familiar with.

    I believe that product placement is good and bad. I think that it is an excellent form of advertising, but it need to only be done in moderation. Our culture does not need to depend on product advertising to sell. Video games and movies should not depend on product placement to sell there creation. Creativity should be the number one thing.

  19. Shenandoah Phillips says:

    Being in a culture that is so infused with commercialism and subliminal advertising, we’re so accustomed to seeing ads in every platform that we become numb to them do to overexposure causing people only absorbing the information and news that they like.

    I see the pros of product placement and branding in that it makes it makes the show or movie seam more “realistic,” and people can express their likes and dislikes through brands they “advertise” in what they wear, what bumper stickers they have on their cars, and what product stickers they put on their laptops and water bottles, it helps people connect with those who like the same things.

    I also see the cons of product placement and subliminal branding including placing the highest value on consumerism, it lessons uniqueness and places people in categories (mac user or pc user) by then which we value or devalue them by creating judgment, and also a lack of penetration of good messages of the constant ad overstimulation we are hit with on a daily basis.

    I do not think there should be a blanket ethical code that canceled all product placement and advertising because it has become part of our culture and I believe consumers use products as a form of artistic expression. Yes, consumers may not be creating the brand themselves, but it is a way by which they express themselves. However I believe there should be a “medium” ethical code of needing to benefit more then just the company to be able to use product placement and it should only be used when it is beneficial to many parties.

  20. Rachel Yeates says:

    Considering the ease with which people can bypass or ignore advertisements these days, I can see, from a corporate perspective, how companies feel their only option is to embed their products in the media content itself, but the ways audiences react to these product placements might dissuade them from doing so. There are those who argue that name brand product use in a television show or movie adds to the realism. If this is the case, are they really being persuaded into buying those products? Others find product placement intrusive and annoying. And I definitely see where this side is coming from. You don’t want to be overly aware that someone is trying to sell you Tropicana orange juice for example when watching The Amazing Spider-Man. Realism, maybe, but when the label is perfectly angled and the camera positioned to highlight the presence of the bottle, it bleeds into irritating.

    I appreciate the shows that attempt humor in their product placements and make them obvious to the viewer, 30 Rock and Psych for example. They speak openly about the products and make the audience enjoy listening to them do it. I’m not sure about how this approach affects product sales, but as a viewer, I appreciate an attempt at honesty from such a devious industry.

    I think that the shows and movies are selling the audience as much as an advertisement is (support our merchandise, continue to watch our programming, buy our dvds, accept these values and plot lines), so I don’t think regulations on these things are necessary. It’s all a business, some aspects are just more obvious than others.

    I do think, however, that America as a branded culture should do some introspection into what and who defines quality and “the desired.” If all you look for in a product is a Nike swoosh, then you should consider the wants and needs you hope this product can fulfill, consider the cost, and debate whether or not the two combine in such a way that makes buying a piece of blatantly name-branded apparel worth it.

    The class discussion the other day about American vs European clothing choices was very interesting. American advertisers use people to do their work for them, but the wearers then use those pieces of clothing, etc. to project an image of themselves into the world for others to judge.

    Everything is a choice, whether it’s one we’re aware of or not, and especially in regard to clothing choices, we should be more aware of the reasons why we make the choices we do.

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