Thursday, June 17, 2010

Product Placement - Not so subtle Normative Cues!

In Space, no one can hear you smoke... Huh?

I watched the much-hyped James Cameron film, Avatar, last night. It was a hackneyed CG film with nearly every Hollywood cliche in it. The plot was, to say the least, predictable. I suppose on a 3-D IMAX screen, the special effects would be interesting. But on the small screen, it came across as a hokey space movie.

What was disturbing to me was the product placement in the film, specifically cigarettes. Cigarettes? In Space? In the future? How unlikely is that?

Yup, the character played by Sigourney Weaver wakes up from her "Avatar" interface and demands, first thing, a cigarette, which is provided by a technician. In a later scene, we see her lighting up in the control room (as shown above). Why did the director feel he needed to do this?

It is highly unlikely that in the distant future that people will smoke. It already is a habit on its way out - a quaint, 19th Century habit, really. Carrying around small fires in your hand - unsafe on so many levels. And the health problems, well, they are well-known.

So in the year 2200 a highly regarded scientist will....smoke? Hardly.

And yet, Cameron defends the product placement as necessary for the development of the character.

I think a more prosaic answer might be that he was paid to put that in. Yes, product placement is rampant in movies these days. If you can put a product in a movie, it is like an advertisement for the product that cruises under the radar.

And it is amazing how many movies use product placement to offset production costs. If you play your cards right, companies will pay for the entire cost of the movie, if you put their products in. So right off the bat, any box office shows pure profit.

Even Schindler's List, the holocaust movie, had prominent product placement. In the opening credits, Oskar Schindler's minions go about uncovering stashes of luxury goods to give to high-ranking Nazis. In one scene, a person unearths a cache of Hennessy Cognac, with the bottle label squarely aimed at the camera. An accident? Well once, perhaps.

But in another scene, Schindler is showing instructing his assistant to prepare a gift basket for a high-ranking Nazi, telling him to put "the good stuff" in it,"Hennessy Cognac." And once again, we see the bottle and label in a nice "beauty shot" in the gift basket. Having the main character use the product, display the product and mention the product by name is the goal of any company trying to do product placement. And if you can score all three, well, it's gonna cost you - big time!

Product placement - in a holocaust movie. A little tacky, no? 

And the problem with product placement is that, while in many cases it is not so subtle (I picked up on the cigarettes in Avatar and the Hennesy in Schindler's List, right away, as they were so jarring) in others, you may not tend to notice it. And since generally, product placements are not credited or disclosed (along with the financial dealings behind them) we really have no idea whether something is in fact a product placement, or merely an "accidental" use of a product. Or do we?

In days gone by, in the movies and on television, producers would go out of their way to insure that no product logos were used. So actors drank from cans of beer marked "BEER" or drank generic scotch or smoked generic cigarettes. In fact, using a trademarked logo on a product could be problematic, as the trademark holder might object, for example, if the product was shown in a negative light. So, for example, you depict a drunken character swilling Budweiser, you might expect a nasty letter from their lawyer.

So today, it is not hard to detect product placement. If you see a trademarked product in a movie or on a television show, chances are, someone paid to have the product placed there. Tony Soprano buys Carmen a new Porsche Cayenne, because Porsche paid them to. They didn't just pick something out of a hat. If you see a product label, here the name mentioned, see the label being aimed carefully toward the camera, well, chances are, it's a product placement, no doubt about it.

As I have noted in my other blog entries, television can be very damaging to an individual, as it provides all the wrong sorts of normative cues - cues that are paid for by people with economic interests directly and vehemently opposite of yours. If you watch enough TeeVee, you'll start to believe in payday loans, a Coke and a Smile, and You Deserve a Break Today - and leasing a new SUV for low, low monthly payments. In short time, you'll be fat, broke, and unhappy.

And this form of propaganda works - big time! Look around you. Ever wonder why Americans are so fat, so poor, and far outspend and out-borrow anyone else on the planet? Ever wonder why we had a Real Estate boom and bust? A Stock market boom and bust? Home improvement shows and channels sold us on the idea of "flip this house". Investment programs and channels sold us on the idea of easy money in stocks. If you say it three times, it's true. People bought into the wrong sort of normative cues, lock, stock, and barrel.

And don't think for one minute that you are some sort of willpower Superman who can resist the suggestions of marketers. As they suggest in military training, when you are taken captive and they threaten to torture you, you might as well talk. Because they will make you talk eventually. No one can stand up to the pressure. The same is true for subliminal marketing pressures. You'll succumb eventually. Don't pretend for a minute you are immune.

Product placement in movies takes advertising to a whole new level. An advertisement is pretty blatant, and to some extent, you can poke fun at them and try to ignore them (or turn down the volume or TiVo your way through it). But a product placement flies under the radar in many cases, and you may not realize that you've been marketed to, until you've left the theater. And even then, you probably miss more than half the product placements in a film.

The smoking scene in Avatar was pretty obvious, as to any sci-fi fan, the idea of someone smoking in the far future (in an environmentally controlled laboratory) seems stupid. The Avatar DVD made the point even clearer by inserting a "public service announcement" as an "extra" to the DVD, encouraging people not to smoke. It was an embarrassing admission - putting in an advertisement to try to counter their other advertisement - as if one could cancel out the other. Nice try.

But that backfired in a big way. The public service announcement only called attention to the smoking incident and made one wonder why it was in there. And the answer is simple - someone paid to put it in there. Smoking is on its way out, clearly. The only reason people smoke is for emotional reasons, initially. Once they are hooked, they can't stop, of course, like any other addictive drug.

As smoking is seen more and more of a "white trash" type of behavior, practiced only by the stupid and ignorant, it becomes harder and harder to sell smoking to a new generation or to wealthier people. And with the staggering cost of cigarettes, smoking is rapidly becoming unaffordable for the trailer-park set.

So a nice product placement showing a scientist smoking - and making it seem like a glamorous act in the process (That crumudgeon! Demanding a cigarette from her subordinates! She's one bad-ass!) helps sell the idea that smoking a cigarette makes you a rebel or non-conformist, and also successful and intelligent.

And yet, the act of smoking is so contrary to the character, who is supposed to be a tree-hugging environmentally aware intelligent PhD. It simply is so jarring and unrealistic that it jumps out at you.

The cigarette industry, of course, hasn't stopped with Avatar. Cigarettes have been sneaking into theaters quietly in the last few years, often in "independent" films (made by "small independent studios" which are owned in turn by Warner Brothers or Fox). Film makers argue that they are merely "reflecting reality" by showing characters that smoke. But that raises the question, does life imitate art, or art imitate life.

And the answer is simple: When it comes to television and the movies, art is a training mechanism for the neural network that is your brain. We all get our societal normative cues from these types of media. We watch what others are doing (or what actors playing characters representing societal norms are doing) and take our cues from them.

In some instances, film makers have made a fetish of smoking. In the HBO series Mad Men, much was made of the bad old habits of the 1960's. Smoking cigarettes, drinking a 3-martini lunch, chasing secretaries around the desk. Did these things happen back then? Yes, to some extent. But not as often as they'd like you to think.

And with Mad Men it became sort of a bad joke. They would focus in on a period ashtray or someone smoking, as if to say, "Get it? They all SMOKE! Funny, eh?" We get the point. And those of us who lived in that era knew about it, and it wasn't like they make it out to be.

And unfortunately, the subtle message of Mad Men seems to be that, hey, we did all those bad things back then, and we didn't turn out too badly, right? So women were sexually harassed. One of them becomes a successful copy writer, though, right? And so what if everyone drank or smoked, it's not like they became broken-down alcoholics or died of lung cancer, right?

But the reality of life in the 1960's was that women were harassed and had little or no advancement. An extra-martial affair with your boss often resulted in a back-alley abortion and being fired from your job. And if you were black or Hispanic, the best you could hope for was a job as "office boy". And yes, careers were ruined due to alcoholism. And people died in droves from emphysema and lung cancer.

So no, life was not glamorous or pretty back then. But if you believe the television show as your normative cue, well, it doesn't sound so bad, does it? And you might be tempted to think - tempted - that all the rules and restrictions today are overblown and unnecessary. That a little slap and tickle at the Office is OK, and smoking isn't that bad, and three martinis for lunch make you "creative."

And that's what they want you to think. And to some extent, they are telling you what you want to hear. As I have noted time and time again, you'll never go broke telling people what they want to hear. So if you tell folks they can "eat all you want and not get fat," you'll sell millions of books.

But in terms of your personal life, such messages can be extremely dangerous to your financial well-being and to your soul. Because once you start believing them - and you will, if you expose yourself to them long enough - you'll start acting against your own best interests.

That, in a nutshell, is what advertising is all about. Getting you to act in a manner that is against your own financial interest, in favor of theirs.