Covert Advertising

The FCC vs. product placement.


When Peter Parker shot out his webbing and snagged that can of Dr. Pepper in Spider-Man, it seems that impressionable movie audiences across the country suffered deleterious consequences–perhaps in the form of forgetting how much they loved Mr. Pibb. "The public needs to know when they're being advertised to," says Jonathan Adelstein, one of the five appointees who run the Federal Communications Commission. To that end, he wants his agency to require a lengthy disclosure notice during every TV show with paid placements, an effort he believes it can justify with the laws governing payola.

Product placement isn't a new problem. Indeed, it isn't even a problem. In the golden age of radio, the republic survived product placement during soap operas and The Jack Benny Program without suffering an epidemic of obesity. (Remember "There's always room for Jell-O"?) Consumers may well prefer brand placements over watching endless blocks of commercials, but they'll rebel if the insertions become too distracting. Smart advertisers don't want to drive their audiences to the next channel.

But even if product placement were a crisis demanding government intervention, Adelstein's proposal to require lengthy, prominent disclosures would be a peculiar solution. Audiences will ignore the disclosures the same way they're increasingly ignoring (or TiVoing past) commercials–the same behavior pattern that's driving the move toward product placement in the first place. If only there were a way the FCC could place its message somewhere in the show itself…?