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Advertising goes back to the future

Product Placements
The Medium is the Message Rosario Dawson in a viral YouTube video for Gemini Division, Bravo’s Top Chef prominently featuring Glad products, and Microsoft Photosynth starring in a recent episode of CSI.

Once upon a time, back in television’s Stone Age, a juvey medium that wasn’t quite sure how to make money from new technology decided to continue an approach that had been in use since Lever Brothers underwrote silent films that featured its Sunlight Soap — put products the sponsors were trying to sell right into the shows being sponsored and even have the actors in the programs occasionally step out of character for a pitch directly to the audience. We’ve all seen corny examples of this and it was broadly satirized in the media-bashing Truman Show a few years back.

As the effectiveness of 30 and 60 second commercial breaks became clear, product placement faded and in fact was avoided — so that television shows could be re-run and re-syndicated without worrying about conflicts with unknown future sponsors.

Then along came remote channel changers and Tivo…

Suddenly, the audience didn’t have to sit through commercials anymore and Madison Avenue, facing a potentially cataclysmic loss of revenue, needed a new way to insert sponsored products and messages into broadcasts. Cue the return of product placement (or “brand integration” as it’s called now), where products are prominently featured and may actually be central to the plot (as in a Sex and the City episode that revolved around the adventures of a randy Absolut Vodka ad). Just like in the old days, sponsors and their ad agencies are in the drivers seat when it comes to producing programming, as [this story] about a new show being developed by the ad giant Omnicom called Gemini Division makes clear. It’s been estimated that in 2009, advertisers will spend $7 billion on brand integration marketing.

I have no problem with this, the Truman Show be damned. It seems a more natural way to market things and more realistically reflects the world we live in (where people actually drink Coke, not a can of “cola”). And if it finally kills off the despised commercial break, I’m all for it. Oh, and speaking of Stone Age marketing — if you think current methods of product placement are crude and crass, here’s an example of what the family gathered around the tube in the early 60’s was treated to:

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