by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
fcc, harm, product placement, regulations


What's The Harm In Undisclosed Product Placement?

from the who's-hurt? dept

Back in June, we mentioned that the FCC was exploring whether or not to require any product placement be more clearly labeled. This didn't make much sense, as we couldn't see who was "harmed" without the disclosure and who was helped by it. It basically treats most people as if they're idiots who can't take into account that products seen on TV may have been paid for placement. It appears that Adam Thierer agrees, and has filed comments with the FCC questioning the wisdom of such a move. While some may insist that Americans are being "tricked" by this, it would seem like there should be some proof that there's actual harm before we go about regulating it. Also, there seems to be little recognition of the impact that reputation can have on this as well. With so many sites ready to pounce on any commercial action that appears to be trickery or misleading in some form or another, companies would be well-advised to be as upfront as possible in their advertising efforts. Those caught "tricking" consumers will feel significant backlash for their efforts, making it not worthwhile. It seems that this ability to shine an automatic light on questionable practices should limit the worst abuses of any "trickery."

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  • identicon
    Ima Fish, 22 Sep 2008 @ 11:50am

    "What's The Harm In Undisclosed Product Placement?"

    Have you ever sat through Happy Gilmore? It might not be harmful, but it's certainly far from pleasant.

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    • identicon
      Hillarity Ensues, 22 Sep 2008 @ 11:58am


      You forgot Austin Powers, LOL!


      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Ima Fish, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:16pm

        Re: Re:

        Another good one for product placements is King of California. It's a lower-budget independent movie, but it manages to have more product placements than even Happy Gilmore. And much in the same way that Happy Gilmore included an actual Subway commercial, King of California included an actual Costco commercial.

        The difference is that King of California was a pretty awesome movie. Despite the ads being crammed down your throat.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Fred, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:22pm

    Austin Powers

    I think the Austin Powers writers figured it out, and got product placement right. There kinda was a reason to have placement at the times. It's real clever if it has significance to the plot!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    NSMike, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:29pm

    Since when?

    When did whether or not something actually does harm factor into the FCC's decisions over broadcasting standards? Doesn't someone just need to complain REALLY LOUD for them to take notice? Even if it is one person, or a group that represents 1% of the US population?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Tony Danza, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:37pm

    Who's the boss?

    Is this really FCC issue? Maybe I am reading the statute wrong, but it looks like they are over-reaching the domain given to them by congress.


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  • identicon
    AudibleNod, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:38pm

    If we're talking movies...

    The product placement Idiocracy is spot on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    J.Locke, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:48pm

    With Advertising and Fake Breasts . . .

    I have the same doctrine, if I cant tell, I dont care.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Brian, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:51pm

    Music Videos

    I really hate music videos for this reason- it ruins the music! Going to the club, drinking overpriced Cristal (champagne). Why thank you, Sir.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Dave, 22 Sep 2008 @ 12:57pm

    mocking product placement

    You missed the obvious one... Wayne's World. They had a nice spot mocking product placement...


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  • identicon
    hegemon13, 22 Sep 2008 @ 1:42pm

    Why is this an issue?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    rae, 22 Sep 2008 @ 1:51pm

    Product placement harm?

    Although I must admit, I miss the days when movie and TV show products were always generic - and sometimes an opportunity for non-acting members of the "cast" to slip in amusing jokes - it's hard to see how product placement is harmful. Add it to the list of things children see on TV and in movies that parents have to explain.

    What I would really like to know is how Maytag can get away with running a TV advertisement that is blatantly pushing the idea that paper receipts from electronic voting machines are a "problem" that slows down voting! I've also been wondering why I am the only person I know who finds it an offensive attack on democracy and none of Maytag's business or why no one in the media has picked up on it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Brian, 22 Sep 2008 @ 2:03pm

      Re: Product placement harm?

      The referenced Maytag commercial is extremely funny because we've discussed the issues at incredible length here.

      It seems this issue is glossed over by the media, but come November 12, it's going to be a real problem again. Polls coming out Sunday and Today are saying it's virtually tied again. Apparently Joseph Goebbels/Rovian tactics work. SNL did a their opening about it this last weekend.

      It's not left or right, up or down, but what's correct and incorrect. In a 2% margin of error election year, and heavy reliance on machines that have been proven they can't count correctly, they shouldn't be there.


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  • identicon
    hegemon13, 22 Sep 2008 @ 1:51pm

    Why is this an issue?

    Oops to the above post. Hit Enter by mistake...

    I don't understand the concern at all. How about letting the viewers decide what they want to watch? If product placement is obvious or obtrusive, people will either accept it or be annoyed and pass on it. If it is integrated well enough to be "hidden," so to speak, then what is the harm? It may be ineffective advertising, but since when is that the FCCs domain?

    No one is being tricked. They know what they are watching is fiction. If I notice that all the computers in 24 are Dells, I don't say, "I want a Dell because the CTU uses them to fight terrorists." Why do I need to know when a show has received money for using certain products? If it means the show gets a better production budget and fewer commercial interruptions, then more power to them and better entertainment for me. I certainly don't want the FCC putting up stupid product placement warnings before a show. That would just make ALL product placement obtrusive and annoying. Come to think of it, maybe that's the point. Could it be advertisers behind this push?

    Also, product placement, when done right, is brilliant. Even when someone DVRs or downloads the TV show, they are still viewing the advertisements. What better way to get around that problem?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    wasnt me!, 22 Sep 2008 @ 1:52pm

    when ever i see a brand product in a show or a movie i assumed its product placement. (after back to the future 3 that is)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Green Machine, 22 Sep 2008 @ 2:58pm

    If there is harm ...

    ... then the FTC has authority to do something about it. The FTC has the authority to eliminate commercials that are designed to intentionally mislead or are likely to cause substantial harm to consumers. And that includes any commercials embedded into programming.

    To be clear, we're not even talking about "undisclosed" product placement, as the post title suggests. Current rules require broadcasters to disclose product placement or the more insidious sounding "product integration." Groups like Commercial Alert are pushing for more disclosure along the lines of pop-ups to "alert" you every time a product is featured in programming. That seems like a great idea. I'm sure that won't annoy every television viewer in the country. Of course, their real goal is to eliminate product placement altogether. And if the FCC follows suit, they will have a difficult time explaining to the courts why it's not a violation of the commercial speech protections as set down in the Central Hudson case.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2008 @ 4:10pm

    I never got product placement laws. It seems so weird. Like in Mythbusters if they buy something off the shelf they have to cover the logo / product name, or in Big Brother where they have to wrap up the food packaging in plain paper etc...

    It just seems so silly. Is Myhbusters using Coke instead of Pepsi in their "how high can we shoot cola in the air" really going to give a huge boost to Coke sales and screw Pepsi over?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ron, 22 Sep 2008 @ 4:22pm

    Product Placement

    This has been going on in the movies for a very long time..lots of movies in the 80's had Evian clearly on display and drank during the length of the film.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    churchHatesTucker (profile), 22 Sep 2008 @ 5:55pm


    It's all about parsing. If you claim, say, Coke as a legitimate sponsor, they have an easy way to filter you out from their "dilution of trademark" dragnet that keeps the pesky documentarians in line.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2008 @ 5:57pm

    Is it possible they are only harming themselves ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 23 Sep 2008 @ 3:57am

    Product placement becomes a problem when they start altering the story to suit the product. If characters get into a Ford truck and the logo is visible, that's one thing. If the character say they need to take their Ford truck because it has xx amount of horsepower, get xx amount of MPG and has xx amount of pulling power, all at a price below $xxx, that's just plain wrong.

    Since Degree became a sponsor of the show Eureka, they've shown it within almost every episode. They made a point of saying that they were a sponsor of the fictional company in the show and a whole episode revolved around the temperature rising and a miracle substance that would keep the heroes cool enough to save the town. Of course they didn't say it was off-the-shelf Degree, but at every commercial break they run wildly exaggerated commercials telling you that Degree can keep you cool in any heat.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Twinrova, 23 Sep 2008 @ 4:30am

    Let's go over this again.

    "Those caught "tricking" consumers will feel significant backlash for their efforts, making it not worthwhile."

    Mike, this is where your argument breaks down, because once again, you tend to ignore the consumers who got "tricked" to begin with, losing out possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, long before the backlash ever gets back to the company.

    I do agree with you, in some respect, product placement is harmless when done such that the consumer doesn't feel they've spent money on an ad.

    I also don't believe you fully understand the big picture here, so let me help you break it down.

    A few years ago, TV "blocks" used to be pretty standard. TV stations would play 2 minutes of ads for every 10 minutes of "content". When TV stations played movies, there would often be 20 minutes of ad-free viewing before the ads ran, following the standard format.

    Those days are long gone. Now, ad block run as much as 4 minutes for every 8 minutes of content. Movies on TV no longer reach the 20 minute mark, easily hitting at 10 (some so far as running the opening credits then instantly going to a commercial break).

    What does this have to do with product placement? Simply put: it's about the last alternative broadcasters have to use in order to generate revenue because technology is now allowing for ad skipping (I'm actually quite shocked broadcasters don't find a way to disable this feature).

    The actual commercial break wasn't even born when TV first hit the airwaves. Shows were sponsored by corporations and their logos were present during the show (every camera angle was to have the logo).

    Of course, the government stepped in and said this was no longer allowed, and the commercial break was introduced*.

    Now, we live in a world where the "captive audience" no longer exists (please refer to your older blogs for reference) and commercial advertising is "suffering" because of it.

    You've mentioned time and time how digital businesses need to change their models using the free concept, but advertising is one of these you don't ever touch. In fact, Techdirt is also "guilty" of this despite stating it's comfortable with its business model.

    It comes down to greed. The more a company can make, the more it will no matter the cost. I'm tired of companies saying they're losing money while charging consumers overinflated prices for goods ($25 for a DVD, $20 for a CD, $1 for an iTune song, etc).

    Advertising, in short, is a way companies can make money while spending little on their end in hopes consumers won't get pissed. When done effectively, ads are usually dismissed by the consumer (such as here at Techdirt) but aren't when the ad is extremely intrusive (re: TV shows in which consumers felt they've watched a commercial, rather than a show).

    In the past 10 years, the average person's "ad awareness" has skyrocketed from a mere 23% per hour to a whopping 76% per hour at which the consumer gets absolutely no benefit from the viewership. Examples: In game advertising**; bus-side ads; fliers in packaging unrelated to the product purchased.

    Consumers can't "ignore" these, as you simply state we can do. Advertisements are now pushing themselves so far into our daily lives, we have absolutely no choice to ignore them. If you want further proof, just look at the sidebar. We can not ignore those because they are present within our "content".

    If this example doesn't get you to understand the position I'm taking here, you should quit posting blogs about product placement until you do.

    There used to be a time where dealing with ads meant free stuff and every day, this is less true. This is also why I don't agree with you on the topic ads = content = ads. If content is oil and an ad is water, no consumer will ever buy into the fact oil = water = oil, but all can be defined as liquids.

    One day, you'll see where I'm coming from but it's only going to happen when you, as the consumer, finally get screwed by this so-called "product placement" (ad=content) "tricking",having spent good money for it.

    I look forward to the blogs you'll post about it in the future.

    *Historic fact simplified in this reply. More went on regarding advertising and the government before the commercial break was introduced.

    **In game advertising is something all of you should be concerned with. Not only is the cost saving not passed to you, but game companies are now introducing "micro transactions" to get even more from game players.
    Shouldn't these transactions be free for having dealt with in-game ads? Think about this the next time you shell out $70 for a game.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John, 23 Sep 2008 @ 4:49pm

    Just some things

    When did whether or not something actually does harm factor into the FCC's decisions over broadcasting standards? Doesn't someone just need to complain REALLY LOUD for them to take notice?
    Yes, you just need to shout really loud for the FCC to do something. Less than 0.01% of the viewing audience of the 2004 Super Bowl complained about Janet Jackson's 1/4 second "flash", yet the FCC tried to fine CBS, MTV, the NFL, and the CBS TV stations hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    Someone else mentioned movies back in the 1980's... back then, the movie had to PAY the company to use its product! The most famous was when M&M/ Mars wouldn't accept payment from Spielberg for use of their candies in "E.T.".
    Reese's Pieces said yes, and they became famous because of it.

    Now, companies spend millions to get their candies, sodas, cars, etc. into movies and TV shows.
    Someone mentioned the TV show, "Eureka", but I remember an episode of "Smallville" which was "sponsored by" (meaning paid for) by Stride Gum. The catch-phrase that made me want to run out and by the gum? When the character, Pete Ross said, "Stride Gum, now krypontite-free!"

    And how about the "GM Rider" movie, um I mean "Knight Rider", with it's 8 minutes of GM cars driving on the road, then 2 minutes of commercials for GM cars, then 8 minutes of a car chase (GM cars of course), then another 2 minutes of GM commercials, then back to the GM car chase, then commercials. By the second hour of the movie, I couldn't remember the names of the characters, but I could name the make and model of every GM vehicle shown on the screen!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    J, 23 Nov 2008 @ 4:02am

    Stories are important to our society, because they comment on it, and they provide a way for people to relax, enjoy themselves, and think. They also put people into situations they haven't experienced, and into the minds of people they aren't. They are exercise for the parts of our brain that allow empathy and open-mindedness. They are important.

    It seems that more and more stories are designed to sell things. This is a disturbing trend. Stories that are designed to sell things are bankrupt of moral value, or even the stimulation of thought. Think about most commercials - that is what our movies, books, tv shows, and stories are going to be like if product placement is not understood and carefully regulated. There is harm in non-disclosed product placement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    murray, 19 May 2011 @ 8:35am

    product placement

    Many are concerned that the line between appreciating art and being a consumer is being erased when these hacks include ads in their shows and movies. Of course people probably can figure out that the placements are paid for, but so what? I find it hard to understand why people just accept this stuff.

    Oh well, I guess our ways of storytelling in this culture will become themselves vehicles to sell more stuff. Happy days ahead!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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