Product Placement: It’s Everywhere, It’s Everywhere

So we were sipping our Starbucks macchiato, sitting in front of our Dell computer, a bottle of crystal clear Evian at our side, when we came upon this headline in the Christian Science Monitor today: “Product placement pushes into print.”

Already, you can’t watch a movie or TV show without seeing some wristwatch or car or soft drink featured in the plot line. And now print — as in editorial content of newspapers and magazines — is next?

Apparently, yes.

According to the article, revenue from product placement in magazine editorial copy — that’s stories and photographs, folks — is expected to jump 17.5 percent this year to $160.9 million, and in newspapers, 16.9 percent, to $65 million. According to a report issued by PQ Media, “The study measured all placements of products, whether paid for, exchanged in a barter arrangement, or included without compensation to the publication. It also counted such things as product reviews and photos of products provided by companies without charge.”

Some of the evidence the Monitor piece offers is troubling, such as a report from that Lexus is “in negotiation with unnamed publishers to try to find ways to integrate mention of its cars into stories.” One proposal floated: Have staff writers compose story-like advertorials that would be indistinguishable from their regular copy. Another was to have Lexus cars appear in photographs that accompany articles (though not, presumably, photos accompanying an article on car bombs in Iraq).

That such product placements already show up in those fat fashion magazines is not so surprising; they already look like big catalogues interspersed with sparse editorial matter. So, what if the few skimpy stories also mention Versace and Calvin Klein, and the publishers get money or free product for it?

But …The New Yorker? More than one press watcher was dismayed by the August 22 issue of the highbrow magazine, in which Target bought every inch of advertising space. It was confusing enough trying to figure out whether the ads were art or promo — the words “advertisement” and “Target” never actually appeared anywhere. But what really blurred the line, we think, was the cover, a space sacred for the chattering classes, where editorial comment can have real impact — as it did two weeks ago when it caricatured the Oval Office flooding with water and inundating Bush’s inner circle. In that August Target issue, the cover featured cartoonish kids playing with red-and-white beach balls. The problem was that the beach balls clearly echoed the red-and-white logo of the magazine’s benefactor that week. Isn’t that, too, product placement?

There’s more. Advertising Age’s Web site recently announced (subscription required) the arrival of a new food magazine called Relish, which is going to “let marketers buy brand mentions in recipes prepared by the editorial staff and buy product placement among staff-recommended kitchen and home gadgets.”

Edward Wasserman, a columnist for the Miami Herald and a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, is a student of the phenomenon, and he says he hears chatter that the American Magazine Publishers Association “may soon loosen its guidelines and endorse some forms of product placement in magazine content.”

We wish we could come up with an argument that doesn’t see this as a really ominous bit of news. But we can’t. One of the main reasons we continue to trust quality print sources has to do with the very high wall, topped with broken glass and barbed wire, that is supposed to stand between the editorial and business sides of publications. If you take a Hummer and ram into that wall, no amount of Crazy Glue nor any other tool you might find at Ace Hardware or Walmart, will help you put it back together again.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.