What came first? The chicken (commercials) or the egg (content)?
That’s debatable. But what’s clear is the interdependent, intertwined relationship between advertising and content has been with us since the early days of radio and television.
Take, for example, soap operas. They were originally created as a vehicle to literally sell soap. Manufacturers were both the sponsors and producers of the early radio shows that later transitioned to television.
And the promotion didn’t stop when the opening credits ended. Product placements popped up throughout the program, and ever since line between content and commercial has been blurred.
Some times, product placement is woven seamlessly within story lines – think of “ET” and Reese’s Pieces®. Or Tide® in the movie “Mr. Mom.” When we as viewers are entertained, we don’t mind the content/commercial combo.
But most of the time, product placements are awkward. And the storyline suffers. See some of the best of the worst at “Days of our Cheerios.”
The bad can be really bad, which is one of the reasons why so many people passionately followed the latest ad verses programming debate that surround the contract negotiations for “Mad Men.” From the nytimes.com:
“…Mr. Weiner is bristling at the channel’s proposal to shorten each episode by two minutes (to add commercial time) and to cut the cast budget (to save money). He says the changes would fundamentally make “Mad Men” a “different show.”… Mr. Weiner would not talk about the specific proposals. But another person with knowledge of the negotiations said AMC had also demanded additional product placement in the episodes.”
Fans of the show are concerned that the quality of the show will suffer with concessions to ad men (the ones in real life, not those on the show). In fact, they’re so concerned about a “Mad Cheerios” situation (among the other changes), they have even created a Facebook page called “Save ‘Mad Men’ from the ad men.”
On a side note: This is an interesting case of the merging between “old media” and “new media,” and it demonstrates how new outlets can make the once solitary act of watching TV now social. This was further exemplified when this Facebook page was linked on many blogs that regularly attract fans of the show, including Tom and Lorenzo as well as Basket of Kisses.
Fans were passionately opposed to proposed changes. But were their fears justified, at least with respect to product placement?
Would product placements ruin, or at the very least, weaken the show? Because, really, aren’t they doing product placement already? Matthew Weiner has said the show has had only three paid product placement in its history. But the show is mentioning many, many more brands such as Lucky Strike, Hilton Hotels®, Pond’s®, Clearasil®, London Fog® (A strong candidate for one the three as Christina Hendricks appeared in their print ads), and American Airlines® – just to name a few.
Which means they’re giving away a lot of money. A lot of it. The equivalent of three million dollars in one season alone according to this blog.
Creative control is clearly the concern with adding more product placements. But with an established show like “Mad Men” with an audience with household incomes well above average, doesn’t the show have the upper hand? It seems like the terms of client approvals could be negotiated to keep creative control firmly in the hands of the show’s creators while incorporating more revenue-generating placements.
Which brings me to questions for all of you to think and post about.
With the high cost and, quite frankly, the scarcity of well-written and produced scripted shows with ensemble casts, would viewers be willing to put up with more product placements to make possible more quality, engaging programs on non-premium cable stations?
And how can advertising and programming find a happy medium in which everyone wins, even the viewers? Marketers keep some control over how their product is or isn’t portrayed while allowing the writers and producers the freedom they need to create believable, compelling story lines. And viewers aren’t hit over the head with clunky intrusions.
Does it come down to the show? If it’s good and it’s popularly is a direct result of its quality, is it easier for the show’s creators to keep more creative control? Or does control have little to do with it, and more skilled writers, like those who work on “Mad Men,” will be simply better at believably incorporating brands into the story lines?
Or does it come down to the advertisers? Smart marketers will know that more natural brand sighting will be more effective. If product placements don’t weaken the show, then higher income, media-savvy, and thus more difficult to reach, viewers will keep watching the vehicle that’s delivering brand awareness and the benefits of being associated with something cool.
Chicken? Or egg?