The Church And State Of Advertising

Posted by

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 GamesNHL 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:


  1. The headline is a bit misleading. It needs to be more like “when is too much too much” – we live in a world where the phrase “Brand Journalism” is gaining traction, especially in Europe, and sooner or later, the public is going to turn their back. Having said that, the public also knows that nothing is free. In the end, quality is more important than the placement itself. If the story is created in a fitting-a-round-peg-into-a-square-hole kind of way, well, the audience is smart enough to sniff that out. If the content is of quality to the audience, and delivers something to them (be it entertainment, information, etc), then how that information gets to them, and who pays for it, matters little.

  2. I had no idea about CG and TV re-runs!! As disturbing as it may sound, it is a brilliant idea. I agree with some form of disclosure. Full disclosure here, I drink Heineken beer.

  3. Hey Mitch! None of this is new, of course. In the earliest days of radio and TV drama, the shows were actually produced by the sponsors and their ad agencies, hence “The United States Steel Hour” and stuff like that. Classic radio shows like Fibber McGee and TV shows like The Goldbergs would come to frequent screeching halts so the characters could start expounding on the superior qualities of Maxwell House coffee or Pep cereal.
    Of course, the inevitable end result of this kind of nepotism was the game show scandals of the mid-50’s. The ad agency madmen producing the shows considered them to be nothing more than extended commericals. They were focussed entirely on the bottom line, and if the handsome contestant was more popular with viewers than the homely-but-smart contestant, they didn’t hesitate to cheat to keep their viewership up.
    There’s got to be some kind of firewall between content and advertising, or James Bond drinking Heineken will be the least of it.

  4. The lines are blurring!
    I suspect, as Arjun noted, that at some point it doesn’t much matter – we know a genuine story when we feel one, and if it turns out that Coke crafted it, that’s damn good advertising/branding isn’t it?
    On the other hand, if we thought we were experiencing an authentic story and find out later it was all to sell dish soap, we might lash out.
    The only litmus test is the experience. Market at us and see what happens. Blowback isn’t just for the CIA anymore.

  5. Great article! But as a person who writes fashion, travel and beauty articles for both digital media and print magazines, I must clear up one mistake you’ve made. The FCC ruling requiring blogs to disclose getting a sample was a huge slap in the face to the digital community. I can tell you with 100% certainty, that when a cosmetic company sends me, for example, 6 lipsticks and 4 eyeshadows to test and hopefully review in an editorial, they’re sending the writers at the print magazines 10X that amount, and will also include some little gifts in the package as well.
    Once an editorial review is posted, I always get a “thank you” email, sometimes a hand written card, and about once a year, some flowers or a bottle of wine. On the other hand, those that work at companies like Conde Nast, Hearst, Hachette, etc, not only get flowers, but pricey gifts too. (Hermes scarrf, $1500. handbag, $500 wallet). So while I’m all for transparency, I’m incensed by the way the FCC pointed the finger at ONLY online media and made it the poster child. For anyone that thinks it’s a coincidence that a product is reviewed editorially in a print magazine and there’s big buck ads in the same issue has their head in the sand.

  6. I saw a piece years ago that questioned whether you were looking good enough to be on camera. The reference was to the infiltration of surveillance in every inch of our lives. There are cameras at bank machines, stop lights, shopping malls and every other location we travel in a given day. Our route is being filmed by GPS tracking devices and traffic interface systems. We are on camera, constantly and we don’t even notice it anymore.
    Product placement and manipulation have been co-creators of the marketing industry since the word ‘marketing’ was invented. It’s not just the cereal box on Ray’s kitchen table any more; it’s embedded into the script. It’s unavoidable and now perhaps ignorable. It was cute the first time I heard Twitter mentioned on a television show, now it’s in every second one. Art imitates life imitating art with a title sponsor.
    The challenge for marketers is not to find an unused flat surface to place their messages, but for them to find a way to afford customers and potential customers a moment’s peace from the never ending onslaught of pitches and slug lines. Sadly, that genie crushed the bottle and left the room years ago.

  7. A recent movie, two people sitting at a kitchen table engrossed in conversation. The first angle shot over one person’s shoulder showed a slighlty rotated soft drink label of undetermined brand. The scene switched to a view over the second person’s shoulder but at such an angle you could not see the soft drink at all. The director quickly switched back to the first camera (the drinker had not takin a sip in the interim) and presto the Coke label was at perfect rotation. I have a pvr and rewound just to make sure I saw what I saw. Lazy editing or purposeful? If this was the plan all along it’s too overt for me and I draw my line.
    BTW substituting a Heineken for a martini in Bond may be the greediest and in the end stupidest choices ever made by the accountants on both side of this equation. Think any of them worked for Coke in 1985?

  8. Product placement in movies and TV shows literally makes me laugh. I mean, it really adds comedic value to my viewing experience. When they remove logos from items because the brand has not paid for the advertising to be on the show to the over the top placements seen in action blockbusters.
    My favorite all time product placement scene is in Wayne’s World 2 (I think) when Wayne and Garth are drinking Pepsi, taking Nuprin, etc. I know that is intentionally funny, but even when its not intentionally funny…it is.
    And you’re right, no one is watching the credits at the end to see who paid for advertising. The trained eye doesn’t have to see who paid for advertising, its obvious.
    Great post Mitch.

  9. Related to today’s topic, but spawned by an earlier podcast.
    I was listening to the podcast entitled “The Ultimate Question with Fred Reichheld” on the drive home from my parents house on Easter Weekend. The podcast discussed social media and the phenomenon of liking, recommending, pinning, tweeting, tumbling, insert your digital accolades of choice here, brands.
    As spending 5 uninterrupted hours of listening to the opinions of others will do, I started thinking. Will big data and marketing technology help or hinder small business sales? Is digital advertising dominated by companies that offer products that actually add the most value to us or by companies with the deepest pockets?
    What are the laws of the marketing technology highway where big business is Wall Street and small business is Main Street? Do they create a level middle class, or a disparate gap between the rich and the poor?
    If we are heading in a direction where the gap is widening, what is your small business doing to maximize it’s digital marketing dollars? Avoiding it is not a good answer.
    Insightful? Maybe too much time in a car.

  10. Ad/editorial separation is largely a print phenomenon these days, where “hard” news lives. It’s ironic – newspapers, a dying medium, insist on it, while more and more of their audience defects to grossly opinionated sources like Fox or CNN.
    It seems like we only want the news that suits us, not the news that makes us think.

Comments are closed.