Brand integration, product placement, embedded advertising, plugs. Call it what you like, it is now a fact of TV life. In a world where technology can seamlessly dispense with commercials, getting the message across has driven ads deeper into the DNA of TV programming.
In addition to DVRs, the rise in reality TV—so perfectly suited for product placement—has contributed to the proliferation. And in a once-flush economy that went from the tank to the toilet, no ad dollars can be left behind.
Consumer groups bemoan embedded ads in general, calling them “inherently deceptive and harmful.” Hardly, but it explains why they would like to kill the practice with the noose of overregulation. They want all plugs to wear the equivalent of the Scarlet Letter; some are even pushing the FCC to require onscreen IDs of the sponsorship in real time. For a show like American Idol, that might as well be a running crawl à la CNN.
For scripted shows, it could mean breaking up the show's flow. Perhaps a “Hilton Hotels has paid for this character” whenever Connie shows up in Mad Men. Of course, that would only be if activists got the FCC to start applying the rules to cable ads, over which it has some control. Stranger things have happened.
The FCC has an open inquiry into possible changes to on-screen IDs for embedded advertising. On the table are a host of proposals, including more prominent disclosures. Before the FCC takes any action, we would advise the commissioners to keep in mind that advertising is the price of being able to deliver free TV—entertainment, local news, weather—to all the folks who can't afford cable or satellite.
The government spent more than $1.5 billion in the DTV transition to make sure that minorities, seniors and others could still get an ad-supported, over-the-air signal. If the evolving model for that entertainment delivery system includes more in-show branding, it would be unwise for the government to exert too heavy a hand.
There are upsides and downsides to integrated marketing. Among the downsides: Integrated marketing can be distracting, and for writers and content creators, it means less than unalloyed creative freedom. But TV is a business as well as a calling, and art and entertainment have always been, to some degree, a collaboration between creators and the funds to underwrite them. Patrons got painted into masterpieces; movies were changed, and later colorized in service of commerce.
One of the big upsides is that advertisers will still pay for that advertising. Let's try to keep it that way. There are already rules stating that disclosures of embedded ads must be at the beginning and the end of shows. That should about cover it without any more input from the government.