The most recent edition of the NPR program On the Media featured an interview with a VP at the production company for a forthcoming TV variety show called “Live from Tomorrow.” The catch is that the show will run sans commercials, instead integrating products to be plugged “organically” into the show. So, for example, one segment may feature contestants using a Sony/Erikkson cell phone with a built in camera, running around the country on a scavenger hunt to photograph various landmarks with the new gadget.
This is hardly the first instance of product placement in a TV show – Survivor used to stick Doritos on its desert islands, and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” — produced by some of the same team behind this show — plugged AT&T every time someone would “phone a friend.” But they’ll have to rely upon it to an inordinate degree to supplement ordinary advertising revenues.
If you go to the site for the show and listen to the interview, you’ll hear the flak in question, Matti Leshem, give an awfully weak defense of the practice. He says that it’ll be quite “transparent” — not at all sneaky, heaven forfend — but then tries to differentiate it from other kinds of product placement on the grounds that LFT will more artfully integrate the products, so it won’t be as obvious that there’s advertising going on. He then patronizingly chastises the host for what he calls her “old fashioned” view that there’s something unsavory of “Machiavellian” about what amounts to systematic subliminal advertisement as a revenue model.
I do tend to think it’s somewhat unsavory, but it has the advantage of being obvious enough to be exposed to press scrutiny. Far worse was the practice in fashion some years back (and maybe still?) of “guerilla marketing.” An old friend of mine had a job doing this: she’d go into Internet discussion forums and chat rooms pretending to be, say, a Packers fan (or whatever) and talk up a promotion Penzoil was running, where you could get a free NFL watch by sending in a few Penzoil proofs-of-purchase. Sometimes she’d spend a while establishing a presence on the site as an ordinary fan first. Some drink vendors would even send young, attractive people out to hip bars to very vocally praise their newest beverage.
That sort of practice bothered me, because the only real defense against it was to become guarded and skeptical about perfectly casual social interactions. That strikes me as pernicious. The sort of tactic “Live from Tomorrow” is depending on, however, promises to spark a more benign sort of “arms race.” Just as the big brains which allow us to produce art and mathematics arose from a process of escalating evolutionary competition, greater sensitivity to media bias and manipulation in general are the product of a similar sort of competition between “compliance practitioners” and media consumers. Advertisers, bless them, are gross and clumsy enough that their tactics can be exploded, and our awareness of their tactics honed over time. This has the generally positive side effect of making us attuned to more skillful uses of such tactics by, for example, political candidates and journalists. To use a different biological metaphor, advertisers are like the weakened form of a virus contained in a vaccine, which helps us to build an immunity to more potent strains. If you doubt this, consider how transparent and almost goofy the manipulative tactics of admen and politicos of, say, the 1950s seem today. In effect, professional manipulators are guided “as if by an invisible hand” to slowly increase the media-savvy-quotient of the general public. Though, of course, they’re still scuzzballs.