Do it Right or Not at All: Product Placement and Storytelling

I’m not going to knock product placement. I fast forward through TV commercials and mute the ads before YouTube videos, and so do a lot of other potential customers. If we’re skipping ads, marketers have to find new ways to get eyeballs on their products.

I guarantee no one skipped through the climax of Independence Day when an Apple computer blew up the alien mothership, or through Groucho Marx’s delivery of a punch line in Wings when he threw a drowning woman a Life Savers mint. Product placement is forgivable when it doesn’t interrupt a scene, or even better, when it adds something to the experience.

It’s only if product placement is done wrong that it becomes a problem. When advertisers disregard plot and characterization just to jam the product in the scene, yikes, that doesn’t send a positive message. In the crime dramedy Bones, Toyota was willing to make characters babble about the parking assist feature on the Toyota immediately after getting a new lead on their murder case, like a sweet car took precedence over a man’s death. It only lasted a few seconds, but it pulled me out of the show and cut the cables on my suspension of disbelief. That told me that Toyota doesn’t really care about a show viewers care about.

Converse obviously paid through the nose to get its then-new line of shoes featured frequently in I, Robot. Yes, the attention drawn to the product slows down the plot in some scenes. What keeps it from being obnoxious is that the shoes reinforce something about the character. At the same time Detective Spooner is telling moviegoers that Converse are timelessly cool, he’s also telling us Spooner wants to go back to a time when people wore high-tops and there weren’t creepy robots everywhere. The inclusion of the shoes adds something to our understanding of the character. It shows Converse is willing to go about marketing in a more delicate way, rather than just shoving the product at viewers, storytelling be damned.

I’m willing to accept shoddy product placement if it means I don’t have to witness another noisy banner roll across half the screen, though.

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