I’d like to share a therapy moment: I’m a failed entrepreneur. There are, of course, many stories accounting for my failure as a businessman but let me tell you my favorite. Fundamentally, I object to the marketing practices that are the fuel for America’s economic engine. Marketing and advertising exist to entice me to fork over my hard-earned dollars in exchange for products I often don’t need and previously didn’t know I wanted. I view marketing is a form of brain washing. Naturally, industry experts will tell us that all they are doing is presenting us with one side of a story and we are free to act on that information any way we want. But consumers are often blissfully unaware that they are being sold to and are seldom presented with objective views against making a purchase.
Because I have such a visceral response to being marketed to, I struggled to effectively position my own product line in a manner which attracted venture funding and, more importantly, customers. I simply couldn’t spend my days telling people they had to have a product I knew full well they were already doing just fine without.
Let me reiterate my understanding of the importance of marketing, however. I fully comprehend the necessity (and the efficacy, much to my dismay) of marketing in order to fuel our economy. And marketing, advertising and product placement are everywhere. Ralph Lauren wants you to believe that the Polo Pony on your shirt is for your benefit, yet you walk around all day as an unpaid billboard for his products. Few people question the silver name plate of JOHNSON CHEVROLET on the back of their new car, yet the dealership has surreptitiously enlisted you as a pro-bono spokesman for their business.
Television is the sneakiest of all the marketing media though. If you are under the impression that the purpose of television is to air visual entertainment to the public with commercials being a necessary interruption in order to facilitate delivery of the product (the TV show) to the consumer, you’d be sorely mistaken. Rather, the purpose of television is to deliver consumers to the products. Entertainment programming is the bait on the hook that brings consumers to a place where advertisers can attempt to manipulate our purchasing habits. In effect, all TV actors are paid henchman for the companies that advertise during the shows on which they appear. Hollywood’s elite are well compensated for their ability to deliver the rank and file to a common location where corporate America can appeal to our covetous nature.
N.E. Marsden, in the October 30 Washington Post, rails against the increased frequency of product placement as the newest attack on America’s fiscal sensitivities. Her chief complaint appears to be that product placement occurs without the audience’s knowledge: “People have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something.” (Note to America: if you are watching TV, someone is trying to sell you something.) Television has no moral obligation to attend to the public benefit. TV is a for-profit industry and its motives should be a surprise to no one. TV’s one obligation is to move product (yes, while operating within the confines of public decency) and the tactics used to achieve that strategic objective have and will continue to evolve. To TV executives, commercials are the most important programming and the very expensive programming in between them is a necessary evil.
We’ve come a long way from the catchy jingles of the 60s to the subtle practice of product placement (though alarmists should take heart: the reality of The Truman Show is still years away) and Ms. Marsden, a volunteer coordinator of Fairness and Integrity in Telecommunications Media, is calling for government intervention. “Because media providers are blurring the lines between advertising and content, FCC action is critical. Parents have a right to know who is doctoring programs their children watch….” she says.
A better idea than expanding the reach of government regulators would be to encourage Hollywood producers to incorporate themes of public interest into the behavior of their characters. As green house gas emissions are becoming increasingly important to citizens of 21st Century America, when have we seen a program where the main character goes to an auto dealership and wrestles with the choice between the gas-guzzling, man-affirming SUV he wants and the Honda Insight his conscience tells him he needs? As U.S. communities and military installations remain tethered to an aging, frail, and vulnerable electrical grid, when was the last time a prime-time, major-network character turned off a light on his way out of a room?
Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book (The Tipping Point) on how trends get started and go viral. Trendsetters emerge in unique places but can have tremendous effects on individual behavior as the public views the behaviors of early adopters as risk free and socially acceptable. This is where engaging Hollywood as a force for good comes in.
We can ask TV producers to do that which is counter to their purpose—eschew revenue generation from creative and innovative marketing strategies—or we can petition Hollywood to deploy those well developed skills of consumer manipulation to model strategies that contribute to solving the problems that face Americans, a technique TV has occasionally been happy to embrace –portraying the normalcy of homosexuals in society, for instance (like Will and Grace’s Jack was “normal.” Hah!)
Naively pretending that we aren’t being manipulated by what we see on TV and feigning offense when confronted with flagrant manifestations of that manipulation ignores our responsibility to be savvy consumers of the medium. Ms. Marsden wants to turn out lights on Hollywood’s sneaky and nefarious manipulation. I’d prefer Hollywood use their sneaky and nefarious manipulation to get Americans to turn out the lights.