Monday, January 09, 2006

There's No There There

A recent story in the New York Times, "Advertising's Twilight Zone: That Signpost Up Ahead May Be a Virtual Product," shows how the line is being blurred between the props of the dominant cultural narratives of film and television and the products of corporate marketers thanks to a brave new world of digital effects. Now that developers of entertainment properties have discovered the added income stream of product placement, post-production CGI is being used to edit in consumer goods that actors, directors, and writers never saw on set. One of the leaders in the field is Marathon Ventures, a company that also does product placement in video games. For example, the Marathon slideshow shows "before" and "after" pictures of their onscreen wizardry in which boxes of crackers, packages of tuna, and bags of artificial sweeteners magically appear in prime time episodes.

Some of this digital ingenuity may serve as a way to get around resistant writers who could be uncompensated by product placement agreements or resent having their creative labors made more onerous by demanding sponsors. A recent white paper, from the Writers Guild of America proposes a Code of Conduct, and the WGA is hoping to enlist the Federal Communications Commission for help in their fight.

The Zeitgeist toward product placement isn't that suprising, given that viral marketing and guerrilla marketing and other forms of stealth marketing are inserting branded commodities into informal settings of social exchange. At least those who watch television understand that what they are seeing is necessarily manufactured to sell products and that claims for those products may be an implicit as well as explicit part of the show experience.

After all, for years sports stadiums have been digitally altered to show ads for different regional markets, so athletes have been playing in virtual reality environments for a while. Stadium advertising is an interesting case of "narrowcasting" to target product appeals to particular audiences, which is slowly spreading to other public spaces.

With ubiquitous computing, so comes ubiquitous marketing, as the movie Minority Report dramatically shows. Of course, Minority Report received about $25 million in product placement fees to offset its blockbuster budget, a mark exceeded by at least a half-dozen films in 2005.

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