Is it any wonder that television is often compared to prostitution? Celebrities who lend their voices or faces to advertisers are accused of “whoring” themselves. This metaphor is not underserved, since at the root of both industries is currency. In order for studios to produce the shows we as a viewing audience like to watch, they have to sell commercial time during the broadcast. In order to get us to watch these commercials, advertisers pay the celebrities we love to watch to perform in them and those actors who do may be compared to a prostitute. The comparison becomes more clear and more apt when the ads appear in the television shows themselves instead of during ad breaks.
Product placement is not new. Any time you see a brand-name cereal box or soda can in a show or movie, the manufacturer paid the producers to put it there. But now, they are actually writing the ad copy into the script of the show. I was watching Ghost Whisperer this weekend when I noticed one of the more egregious examples. The Melinda character had her car destroyed and her husband buys her a new one. He has it delivered to her store with a big red bow on top (the big red bow—in case you didn’t know—is a tried and true car commercial icon) and the characters talk about and demonstrate the features of the car from the remote ignition to the third-row seating. This activity did nothing to advance the plot or subplots of the episode or aid in character development. It was just to sell the car.
Imagine if this goes on. New movies and TV shows will be peppered with pitches that we don’t see coming. These ads will be fully integrated with tomorrow’s classics. Our culture is full of timeless stories that most of us know well enough to recognize from limited exposure. Suppose they rework these classics the way they are infiltrating our new shows.
Darth Vader faces Luke Skywalker on the forest moon of Endor. “I see you’ve constructed a new light saber…and you’re using the improved Energizer Lithium Ion technology for more power and longer life. Your skills are now complete.”
Scarlet O’Hara clings to Rhett Butler as Tara burns around them. “Oh, Rhett! Where will I go? What will I do?
“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, but if you book 30 days out with Expedia, you can get significant savings on all your travel plans.”
The slaves are facing the Romans and being threatened with mass execution if someone does not point out Spartacus: All of the slaves stand one at a time and say “I am Spartacus!” Then an aid leans into the general and says, “Search Overload? Try Bing. It’s not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine. From Microsoft.”
Once was a time when ads were pitched during variety shows and game shows, but those were clearly advertising. There has historically been a demarcation between content and commercial. You knew what you were seeing and you had an expectation of hearing the sales pitch. It kept the content pure, so you could allow yourself to become immersed in the story without worry about being sold a bill of goods. What marketing companies are doing now is more subliminal and more devious. Now, they are not just using our favorite celebrities to sell, they are using our favorite characters and stories. I find that a line they should not cross.