Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker‘s fantastic TV critic, has an essay in that magazine on the relationship between advertising and television that is well worth your time. It works as both a critique of native advertising and a history; as one wise show put it, all this has happened before and all of it will happen again. Here's Nussbaum on the latest iteration of product placement:
Product integration is a small slice of the advertising budget, but it can take on outsized symbolic importance, as the watermark of a sponsor’s power to alter the story—and it is often impossible to tell whether the mention is paid or not. "The Mindy Project" celebrates Tinder. An episode of "Modern Family" takes place on iPods and iPhones. On the ABC Family drama "The Fosters," one of the main characters, a vice-principal, talks eagerly about the tablets her school is buying. "Wow, it’s so light!" she says, calling the product by its full name, the "Kindle Paperwhite e-reader," and listing its useful features. On last year’s most charming début drama, the CW’s "Jane the Virgin," characters make trips to Target, carry Target bags, and prominently display the logo.
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Those are shows on channels that are explicitly commercialized. But similar deals ripple through cable television and the new streaming producers. FX cut a deal with MillerCoors, so that every character who drinks or discusses a beer is drinking its brands. (MillerCoors designs retro bottles for "The Americans.") According to Ad Age, Anheuser-Busch struck a deal with "House of Cards," trading supplies of booze for onscreen appearances; purportedly, Samsung struck another, to be the show’s "tech of choice." Unilever’s Choco Taco paid for integration on Comedy Central’s "Workaholics," aiming to be "the dessert for millennials." On NBC, Dan Harmon’s avant-garde comedy, "Community," featured an anti-corporate plot about Subway paid for by Subway. When the show jumped to Yahoo, the episode "Advanced Safety Features" was about Honda. "It’s not there were just a couple of guys driving the car; it was the whole episode about Honda," Tom Peyton, an assistant V.P. of marketing at Honda, told Ad Week. "You hold your breath as an advertiser, and I’m sure they did too—did you go too far and commercialize the whole thing and take it away from it?—but I think the opposite happened. . . . Huge positives."
I am, for the most part, ambivalent about such placements. Even if television wasn't a business, even if television were a pure art form untouched by the filthy tentacles of the profit motive, I'd understand why such placements would occur for one simple reason: the filmed arts are extremely expensive to produce. You must hire large crews and design huge sets and pay tons of actors and bring on full time writing staffs. These things cost money, and not a small amount of it. A season of Mad Men cost about $40 million. A season of Game of Thrones costs about $60 million. With ad revenues declining as DVRs proliferate (thus reducing the value of ads, since people skip them) and the ratings pie gets sliced ever-thinner, it's not unreasonable to expect networks to try and grab some extra revenue wherever they can find it. This is the price we, the consumer, pay for endless hours of entertainment and it seems like a relatively small one, in the grand scheme of things.
I say "for the most part," though, because sometimes the advertising truly is pernicious. Consider the case of DraftKings and FanDuel and the rest of the "daily fantasy" operators.
For those of you who are blissfully unaware, sites like DraftKings allow people to wager on fantasy football on a week-to-week basis: you pay an entry fee, draft a team each week in the hopes of accumulating the most points, and collect your winnings if you do well enough. Of course, you, the average player, probably aren't collecting much in the way of winnings. The people who win are those who spend tons and tons of time collecting data and buying up the permutations most likely to win. They aren't football fans: they're number crunchers who use brute force (that is, purchasing multiple entries) to top the charts. As Business Insider put it, "Unless you really know what you're doing, fantasy sports betting leagues are a sucker's game." And they're possibly even worse than a sucker's game, if these stories about industry insiders racking up huge wins with insider information are to believed.
None of these stories or stats really matter, though, because DraftKings is everywhere on TV. The advertisements are bad enough, maddening in their ubiquity. But it's the native ads, the product placements that are truly disturbing. ESPN does whole segments on "setting the perfect DraftKings lineup," dedicating large chunks of their NFL coverage to trying to convince you to get online and gamble in a game you have virtually no chance at winning. I'm this close to giving up on The League—not because one of its stars lied about being in the World Trade Center on 9/11, mind you, but because the show each week does a winking promotion of DraftKings, the sort of irony-laden cash grab that we hipsters are supposed to laugh about and nod along and say "look at this ad, aren't we smart for realizing it's an ad, ads are Bad but we are Good for knowing that they are ads, hey, wait, did I set my DraftKings lineup yet?"
As Nussbaum notes, this sort of winking irony is as old as the medium:
Self-mocking integration used to seem modern to me—the irony of a post-"Simpsons" generation—until I realized that it was actually nostalgic: Jack Benny did sketches in which he playfully "resisted" sponsors like Lucky Strike and Lipton tea. Alfred Hitchcock, on "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," made snide remarks about Bristol-Myers. The audience had no idea that those wisecracks were scripted by a copywriter who had submitted them to Bristol-Myers for approval.
I'm all for separating fools for their money. But when you turn what amounts to legalized theft into a form of entertainment, I get antsy. And when that horribly dishonest form of entertainment begins to impact things I actually find entertaining? Well, then we have a problem.