If the advertising industry wasn’t already crammed with ill-advised commercials on smartphones and tablets, we now have to navigate a fractured market rife with challenges like streaming TV, illegal downloads, and even a device created to skip commercials. And when you happen to watch TV the “traditional” way, you might be too distracted by Instagram, Tinder, etc., to actually pay attention to the commercial break.
But just like leggings and Donald Trump, TV advertising always finds a way to stick around. Interestingly enough, the latest technique to get consumers to pay attention is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book—product placement.
Ugh. Seriously, nothing ruins a good show like a bad promotional plug. Let me introduce into evidence the classic car tie-in. Picture this: One of your beloved characters gets behind the wheel of a brand new car. A car you know he could never afford, or wouldn’t be caught dead in. It doesn’t just take you out of the moment—it makes you resent the show for compromising the character’s integrity. Yeah, I’m sure badass Cookie Lyon on FOX’s Empire would really choose to drive around in a fuddy-duddy Lincoln sedan. Sorry, Matthew McConaughey, I’m not smoking whatever you’re smoking.
What bothers me the most? That the lazier acts of product placement aren’t even necessary. For example, I’ve read endless accounts of how much high-tech product placement can be found on Netflix’s House of Cards—but they integrate the devices into the storyline so seamlessly, I don’t even notice. Consciously, at least.
And if you can’t find an organic way to feature products, why not be honest about it? When The Late Show with Stephen Colbert premiered last month, Colbert did a shameless plug for Sabra Hummus. He explained that in exchange for getting to host the show, he made a deal with “an evil entity” that included “certain regrettable compromises”…the first being a shout-out to Sabra Hummus. But Colbert didn’t just plug Sabra: He was in on the joke, hemming and hawing, “no, not on the first night, it’s too soon!” He didn’t disrespect the intelligence of his audience with a half-hearted attempt at product integration. And I applaud him for it.
Alas, these types of smart (and tolerable) product placements seem to be the exception, not the rule. But other shows better take note. Because soon, I’ll stop fast forwarding through the commercials and change the channel completely. And the reality is, I’m not alone. Consumers are already conditioned to bypass advertising—it’s only a matter of time before they find a way to avoid watching it in their programs, too.
Now excuse me, I have to go satiate my inexplicable desire for Sabra Hummus.