Ever since the days of the silent movies, big brands have paid for their products to appear on screen. Today, this form of advertising is so pervasive that we hardly even notice it. But if in-show plugs can be used to promote Pepsi and iPhones, couldn’t they also be used to help create social change? We take a look.
The advertising technique known as "product placement" involves the positioning of specific products or brands in everything from Hollywood blockbusters to primetime TV shows, either as props or as items referred to in the script. The main aim, of course, is to raise the profile of the brand in question.
It’s a clever strategy. Programme-makers welcome the funds from advertisers to help cover production costs, while big brands can promote their products to droves of receptive consumers, who start to associate a product or service with their favourite shows or stars, often without even realising it.
The power of suggestion
In Europe, for example, a strict set of rules was drawn up when the ban on product placement was lifted a few years ago – the practice is not permitted in children’s programmes, and cannot flaunt alcoholic drinks, cigarettes or foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
This shows that product placement already operates within an ethical framework; one that, at least by the power of omission, imparts certain moral guidelines to viewers.
Brands and behaviours
Take this a step further, however, and you have the potential to shape society for the better. In fact, changemakers are already using product placement to influence behaviours and instil values when it comes to the important social and environmental issues of our day.
From the appearance of the Toyota Prius (a famously "clean" car) in several popular TV shows to glimpses of "green" household items (placed in films by companies such as Green Product Placement), the marketing technique is being used to reflect our changing values as a society – in these cases, to promote sustainable lifestyles.
And it’s not just on screen that the media industry is driving change. The smash-hit American TV series 24 did what it could behind the scenes to reduce carbon emissions produced in making the show, and its creators at Fox claim that season seven of the show was carbon-neutral.
Film and food
Whether we like it or not, what we see on our screens (in cinemas, on TV and online) has a huge impact on our lifestyle choices. The media has immense power to drive consumer habits and influence the public imagination.
If product placement can be harnessed to tackle the issue of climate change, it could also surely do a lot to increase our appetite for better food. For a start, more responsibly sourced products could be used on screen, from organic milk to free-range meat. Labels could be placed prominently, and better food could become part of the dialogue, with provenance, portion size and healthy eating discussed openly on screen.
Socially responsible messaging could also improve eating habits behind the scenes, where locally sourced, higher-welfare products and sensible meat consumption could be championed daily.
Discussions about responsibly sourced meat, fish and dairy could also feature in cookery programmes as a matter of course, and cookbooks could draw far more attention to where our food comes from. This way, consumers would be constantly exposed to, and inspired by, the arguments for eating better food.
Pushing an ethical agenda
Given the vast audiences attracted to box-office hits and popular TV shows, the power of product placement could be profound. The canny promotional strategy is fast becoming a vital tool not just for advertising executives, but also for policy-makers everywhere.
"Positive product placement", "policy placement" or straightforward "green branding" – however you dress it up, we could be on the cusp of a media revolution that benefits people, animals and the planet. Fingers crossed.