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Policing Product Placement…

Product placement. Sponsorship. Payola. Image branding. Advertising. Astroturfing. The use of media – old and new – to sell products to people – whether they know you’re selling it to them or not. It has always been a bit of a thorny issue – with laws popping up against the legendary, but ultimately unproven, “subliminal advertising” – the flashing of words and images between the stills of a movie so fast that the audience couldn’t actually see them (though some would claim that these images made a subconscious impression, it has been difficult to consistently reproduce – but it was still banned). The last few decades in particular have seen a flurry of rules and regulations attempting to regulate what you can sell to who and how. But is advertising that easy to regulate?

"The Mac - for the insufferable genius in all of us..."

"The Mac - for the insufferable genius in all of us..."

Over in the United States there are new regulations being put in place requiring bloggers to admit any gratuities which they may receive for writing a blog on a particular subject. They’ll also have to announce any personal involvement they may have with a product (for example, if their partner or a family member works at the company they are discussing in any capacity). While it is a nice idea to force bloggers to identify their conflicts of interest, it isn’t so clear cut an issue. For example, these new regulations would affect bloggers far more than their print media colleagues – there’s fear that providing review copies to bloggers would fall foul of the regulations. It’s also somewhat difficult to get an idea of what material gain is – does the common practice of referring readers to where they can pick up a product I’ve reviewed and getting a cut of the sales count?

What’s also interesting about these regulations, aside from the million-and-one pitfalls facing any blogger, is the distinction that the material draws between blogs and “traditional media… with independent editorial responsibility”. I’m surprised that the notion of independent editorial responsibility hasn’t been the subject of much more discussion – seen as most review magazines and frequently-read newspapers are owned by multimedia conglomerates. If we are to assume the worst about bloggers – that they can be bought and bribed so easily – should we not also assume the worst of these print media houses – that the Wall Street Journal is inherently biased in favour of Fox because they are both owned by Rupert Murdoch? Of course the notion that the Wall Street Journal is a propaganda machine for Fox is somewhat ridiculous, but I am surprised that that the FTC is so willing to trust established print media solely on the basis that it is… well, established print media.

If anything, they deserve more scrutiny, due to to their massive marketing power and recognised and trusted brand names? The only area where I trust new media as much as old media is (ironically enough) media itself – videos, movies, books and so on. If I am buying a car or a computer or a gaming system or whatever, I’ll be relying mostly on established names. I’m not presuming they’ll be print, but established generally means over a decade old, so this may change to encompass web-only productions in the next few years. And I imagine I’m fairly progressive – most people buy car magazines before making a purchase, and my dad likes his PC magazines to compliment his web browsing.

I can understand that social media offers so many opportunities to astroturf or to stealth market than traditional media, but I would argue that the risk is less because there is so much other content already out there. I don’t trust the opinion of random sites or bloggers – I am careful in selecting whose opinions I value. I think a lot of people are skeptical. And I’d worry that these regulations won’t be seen as an effort to dispel their skepticism, but as a justification of it – the FTC must be right to trust the web much less than it trusts journalists. Let’s not forget that the phrase payola has its strongest association to old media – with radio stations being paid to play specific singles. Which is a worse abuse: controlling a dominant and hugely popular broadcaster who is only one of a dozen or so, or faking the approval of one unknown voice amongst thousands? But this is a tangent off a tangent.

I make these points as an independent blogger. I buy my cinema tickets and my DVDs to review my films (or I watch them on Sky, a service which I pay for). I have no links to the industry which I commentate upon, no relatives in show business. I’ve never been swept up off my feet and – say – flown to meet Stephen Spielberg on the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Not that I really have a problem with bloggers doing stuff like that (print film journalists visit sets all the time).

I hate bloggers who are paid-by-word to plug something, or offered an incentive to eschew a philosophy. It does feel like a cheapening of the freedom of the blogosphere, but I’m not sure that this is the way to police it. Part of me suspects that readers are smart enough to spot a paid-per-word blogger or a shill or an astro-turfed contributor, or just when something is not right. After all, these rules have been in force in the UK for over a year and I haven’t noted any huge turn-around (but arguably the US regulations go further).

If I were a US-based blogger, I'd have to tell you I have a student card with a 25% discount in Pizza Hut to put this image up... Good thing I'm not a US-based blogger...

If I were a US-based blogger, I'd have to tell you I have a student card with a 25% discount in Pizza Hut to put this image up... Good thing I'm not a US-based blogger...

Maybe I am a little bit romantic, but I do believe that readers (and people who enjoy media) can spot when they are being manipulated or deceived. Admittedly it isn’t as clear is it is in exaggerated cases (The Truman Show always comes to my mind when I think of unconventional advertising), but I think that audiences are generally sharp enough to realise when something is being pushed on them.

It seems appropriate that old media – equally affected by the same phenomenon – should also look at revising its position. However, the UK is looking at relaxing its product placement rules, which would put Irish broadcasters (who import most of their shows) in a bind. The Irish Times has an excellent article featuring a discussion with Simpsons writer Patric Veronne on the topic. While Veronne – having worked on the Johnny Carson Show – is relatively comfortable with products escaping from the confines of the ad breaks and into the programme, he is worried about how product placement could affect writers.

He makes the case that writers could find themselves in a bind with executives forcing them to write television and movies with products in mind (as if that isn’t already happening with blockbusters like Transformers 2, where a character was created to showcase a new car model). He has a serious point about the impact that the temptation the money offers to networks to alter their programming to accommodate it:

It is necessary to distinguish between traditional product placement and product integration. Product placement is the use of real commercial products as props on a TV show to add authenticity. Product integration takes product placement to a new level by accepting payment to weave commercial products into the storylines, character arcs and even jokes in a TV show. It involves the incorporation of products into the storytelling, characters and dialogue of the programming itself.

It is one thing to have a certain brand of bottled water on the kitchen table as the sitcom family talks about junior’s special problem this week. It is something altogether different to make the writers write and the actors act scripted lines that extol the crisp, refreshing goodness of that water and to convince the wacky next door neighbour, who happens to be a professional water salesman in this episode, to stock and sell the product. That’s not entertainment. That’s integration.

But what can you really do to stop that? Is integration anymore legitimate if it pushes a product that is relevent to the plot – as blockbusters and TV shows inevitably push gizmos and merchandise to their viewers (mostly young children), spawning the word ‘toyetic’. Does it matter that the products that these mediums are pushing exist already?

I really wish I could say that audiences were smarter than this. On the other hand, the year’s biggest hit is Transformers 2 and reality TV is still the dominant form of television, where the executives package not only products, but people, for consumption. Maybe regulation is necessary, but I doubt it will be as easy as it sounds. That isn’t an argument not to regulate the market, simply one to keep in mind.

I’ll be keeping my eye on this story – and trying to get in as much oblique product placement as possible before those blogger deadlines kick in.

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