Are marketers poisoning the well?
When I first started publishing music magazines back in the nineties, I kept running into the question of ethics. We were a two-person operation back then and my job was not only handling all of the editorial content, but the advertising as well. Having a role with that kind of duality was seen as a no-no. The world of editorial content in the media and the advertising that surrounded it was separated like the church and state. To maintain the integrity of the content, they never wanted journalists anywhere near the sales reps. This way, the content could not be impacted because some advertiser wanted more bang for their buck. It was never a perfect world and the well was poisoned on more than a few occasions by a myriad of different media outlets (it still happens to this day). One of the main challenges that the institution of journalism had as social media took hold was the potential ability to sway Bloggers who may not be as inclined to follow in the same footsteps of journalism's morals and ethics. To this day, there is a constant stream of Bloggers caught in payola-like scenarios where paid trips and free merchandise is given in return for a few nice words on a highly trafficked Blog without any disclosure from the Bloggers.
Does anyone remember Blogola?
They called it Blogola, and it got to the point in 2009 that the FCC in the United States decided to step in with an attempt to regulate Blogging. The idea was that Bloggers who didn't clearly disclose any freebies or payments they received from companies for reviewing their products could be fined (and even face injunctions). It was an attempt to create a level playing field while pushing for transparency and disclosure (which is never a bad thing). The more serious Bloggers didn't need the FCC stepping it, because they intrinsically understood the merits of full disclosure and the value of being on the up and up, but as social media continued to evolve into video, audio and images, the lines got fuzzy and very blurry.
This isn't about Bloggers Gone Wild, it's actually about the entire world of marketing, communications and advertising.
Now, more than even, it's not always clear to the consumer if they're watching a movie or one big advertisement. Last week, the news machines kicked up when it was reported that in the next James Bond movie, Skyfall (which is due for release this coming November), the suave British agent will be ditching his famed martini (shaken, not stirred) for a Heineken beer thanks to product placement. While that may be enough heresy for you to start an Occupy Hollywood movement, it's only a part of the intrigue when it comes to Bond... James Bond. Skyfall will break all product placement records by taking in more than $45 million in product placement for just this one film. Some sources place that dollar amount at one third of the cost for the entire film's budget. A huge windfall for the movie studio, but how is the paid customer to know the difference between what is an action movie and what is a commercial? Sure, the odd product placement here or there was a "no harm, no foul" move so long as the context maintained its credibility, but when you're moving into the $45 million range, you begin to wonder if the product is being placed into the movie or if the movie is being written to fit the products?
More dirty little secrets...
Another dirty little secret of the product placement world is the current use of CG (computer graphics) to input product placement where it had not been before. That's right, while you're watching those five year old re-runs of Everybody Loves Raymond, don't be surprised if there's suddenly a box of cereal on Ray's kitchen table that wasn't there in the original version. This is big (no, massive) business. Re-runs can go on and on in syndication for years, so what's the harm in dumping in a few computer generated products here and there?
Advertisers are constantly looking for ways to get their messages in front of you.
From product placement in video games (don't think for a second that the advertising on the rink boards in EA Games' NHL 13 don't go for as much as a rink board at your local NHL hockey arena) to ads in the bins where you place your shoes at the airport (yup, that's a paid placement too!), it's all becoming a game of filling every inch of eye space with some kind of advertisement. People often marvel as they step into New York's Times Square barrage of billboards without realizing that the movie they just saw could well have been one big, massive advertisement and exposure to about the same amount of commercial messages. This doesn't mean that we need to shut it down, but it does mean - in a world where everyone is publishing content in text, images, audio and video - that all of us need to be a little wiser to who is being paid what to say what. There are many prominent video bloggers who currently have representation with talent agents in Los Angeles and New York and are getting backed by serious brands for sponsorships. Perhaps a small paragraph detailing their disclosures is enough, but it may, ultimately, not be. Are you going to sit around until the last credits roll at Skyfall to see a list of who paid for placement?
The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:
- Montreal Gazette - Secret agent of messaging.
- Vancouver Sun - not yet published.