This month heralds the dawn of product placement on British television. For those of you who have been living in blissful, media-free ignorance, product placement is a form of embedded marketing in which companies will spend money to have people on TV and in the movies use their product.
It became commonplace in the United States in the 1980s, and has remained so ever since—hence the reason why American Idol judges drink from Coca-Cola cups, Top Chef contestants rely on Glad products, and characters in the West Wing say lines like: "Good scotch sits in a charcoal barrel for 12 years. Very good scotch gets smoked for 29 years. Johnnie Walker Blue is 60-year-old scotch," while pouring themselves a drink.
Meanwhile, until just a week ago, things have been very different in the United Kingdom, as The Guardian reports:
Program-makers have to jump through some absurd hoops to avoid featuring products, though it's done so discreetly you may not have noticed. In dramas a canned drink is always held in such a way that the logo is obscured by the actor's hand; products appearing in shot during "reality" shows often have their labels obscured in post-production by patches of blur. In both EastEnders and Coronation Street [popular soap operas] where the narrative depends on regular sequences in bars, they have gone as far as to invent their own brands. Avid beer nerd bloggers have spotted Thames Bitter, North Export, Fordham's Ale, Stolenberg 1940, Holmes Lager, Hopborg, Chambers Best Bitter and Devlins on the pumps at the Queen Vic along with bottled Jenkins or Skoe.
Last Monday, daily news magazine This Morning became the first British TV program to feature a paid-for product: the Nescafé Dolce Gusto Melody II coffeemaker, which retails for about $130 in the United States, and which the company reportedly paid £100,000 ($162,000) to feature on the show over a three-month period.
Reactions in the United Kingdom were mixed, with Guardian readers voting 64 to 36 percent not in favor of the new development, while TV companies, predictably, welcomed the new rule, telling The New York Times that it would give them the "flexibility to respond to changes in the marketplace."
To get some perspective on the impact and scope of product placement in the United States, and its gradual spread around the rest of the world, I called Morgan Spurlock. Spurlock, who you may recall from his McDonald's eating adventures in Super Size Me, has just completed a new film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, all about—and completely financed by—product placement. Our conversation is below.
GOOD: What kinds of changes would you expect to see in the United Kingdom, now that product placement is allowed, based on what you've seen in the United States?
Morgan Spurlock: I think the biggest thing that will start to happen is that product placement will begin to influence storylines. It will begin to have an impact on story-tellers' ability to tell particular stories. Here, in the States, you now have people writing in dialogue where characters are holding up Pepsi cans and mentioning how refreshing they are. It's completely ridiculous. That sort of influence is the biggest concern from the creative side. And once the floodgates are open, they're open. I don't believe that there's going to be any turning back. It will just become more pervasive and widespread over time.
GOOD: What's the impact on viewers, apart from distorted storylines?
Spurlock: Ultimately, I think that product placement is just an incredibly subversive form of marketing and advertising. That's one of the things we really talk about in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: Product placement is a commercial announcement, but a lot of people don't realize that they are being marketed to. People in the industry love to say, "Oh no, everybody knows how product placement works and everybody knows it's happening all the time." I don't think that's 100 percent true.
GOOD: In the United Kingdom, programs that contain examples of product placement have to show a little "P" symbol in the opening credits. How effective do you think that will be in warning viewers?
Spurlock: I think that's spectacular. In some ways, I wonder, why wouldn't they just do that here?
But, that said, personally, I don't think anybody pays attention to these things. You just sort of block all that kind of information out after a certain point. I mean, here in the US, I know those PG-13 or 18 ratings are there but I don't know the last time that I actually consciously saw one. So I think if they put that "P" rating here in the States, it would be noticeable for roughly two weeks, and then it would be invisible.
GOOD: The United Kingdom has put limitations on the types of products that can receive paid placement in TV programming. Tobacco, alcohol, gambling, foods or drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, medicines, and baby milk are all banned under the current legislation. What limitations exist in the United States, if any?
Spurlock: There still are some limitations here. But with alcohol, for example, what will happen a lot of times is that the brands will give away a tremendous amount of product. If you walk up to the back of any prop truck in Hollywood, they've got cases and cases of all kinds of beers and liquor that are given to them directly. And then, if they're doing a bar scene, the prop guy will think, "Great, I'll put a Budweiser in his hand, because so-and-so gives it to me all the time." So there's also that kind of massaged relationship that is behind the curtain and that you don't see or notice.
In terms of children's programming, they've done a lot to try to curb advertising in the States, but there's still a lot of open ground. And now, with these incredible powerhouses of entertainment coming out of Disney—things like the Hannah Montana show that have real economic impact in the lives of tweens and their families— I think we'll start to see an increase in product placement using these stars as a vehicle.
GOOD: What's the status of product placement globally?
Spurlock: When I premiered the movie at Sundance, I talked to a lot of different filmmakers and they told me that product placement is really starting to happen in their countries too—in France, and all over Europe, in fact. It blew up in the United States and it's now starting to make its way round the world and into a lot of different entertainment forms.
As commercials continue to get fast forwarded through and as we continue to seek out and consume entertainment in multiple places, the thing is that is constant is that companies making widgets have to figure out a way to let people know about their widgets. I just personally think there's a better and more creative way to do it than have somebody say "Boy, that's a great widget!" in the middle of a show. Leave the storytelling to the creative people and let the people who make widgets keep making widgets.
For example, OK Go is a band that's in my film and State Farm sponsored one of their videos. And at the end of the video, it says, "Brought to you by State Farm." Nothing else. They didn't do anything to pitch the product, they didn't do anything to steer the idea, and ultimately I think they came out looking really great because of that. This is a company that is investing in the talent and that's it. They have no other say other than associating themselves with someone who they think is going to get eyeballs and say smart, funny things and really engage an audience. For me, I find that to be much more attractive model.
And now, for a little product placement of our own: If you're curious to learn more, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens on April 22nd, and should be in wide distribution by the beginning of May.
Images: (1) Pizza Hut in Wayne's World, back in 1992, via; (2) Coca-Cola in American Idol, via; (3) Nescafé Dolce Gusto coffeemaker placed on British TV, via PSFK; (4) The Greatest Movie Ever Sold poster, via; (5) Budweiser in The Fighter, via Brandcameo; (6) Borders in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, via Brandcameo.