Ethics@Work: Product placement - story or an ad?

Humans have been emulating the consumption practices of story heroes as long as they have been telling stories.

product placement 88 (photo credit: )
product placement 88
(photo credit: )
My thoughts this week turn to product placement, as I was recently offered a very interesting placement for my books. The basis for this widespread commercial practice is a basic human tendency: We can hardly doubt that humans have been emulating the consumption practices of story heroes as long as they have been telling stories. Product placement takes advantage of this tendency by inducing storytellers (including novelists and screenwriters) to introduce commercial products into their plots. This type of advertising has greatly increased in recent years. In the early days of the practice it was limited to asking merchants to donate props, which in turn served as passive advertisements for the products. Later the agreements became more formal and advertisers paid for use of their products in the story line. The practice really took off after an astute product placement in the movie "ET" led to skyrocketing sales for Reese's Pieces. (Reluctant disclaimer: I didn't get any money from Universal Studios or from the Hershey Company for mentioning their products here.) The ethical problem with product placement is similar to the one with advertorials, the subject of an earlier column. As we explained, there's nothing wrong with advertising, as long as people know that they are facing a pitch by someone with an interest in sales. But people have a right to expect editorial content of publications to be objective, so inadequately labeled advertorials are deceptive, and ultimately counterproductive since they reflect badly on the quality of the publication. Product placement is similar, though it is not as serious. Since the practice is so common, no one nowadays really expects the choice of brands used in a story line to be based solely on objective storytelling criteria. At the same time, there is no question that artists bear more responsibility to the audience than advertisers do. This responsibility is reflected in a more privileged position as well. For example, commercial speech is subject to more regulation than artistic speech, and has more limited "freedom of speech" protection under the US Constitution. Thus, a movie with product placement may need to be considered an advertisement. Indeed, a major 1980s film with a product placement for a cigarette brand was screened with a warning against the dangers of smoking, as required for cigarette ads. I don't think there's any need to forbid product placement, but I do think that two safeguards are necessary: First, product placement should be transparent. The front matter of the book, or the trailer of the movie, should state that brands "X, Y and Z" are included in the story as paid promotions. Second, artistic works with product placement have to conform to the more limited freedom of commercial works. If, for example, ads are forbidden to peddle junk food to kids or cigarettes to adults, then movies should be forbidden to do so, too. The movies have to avoid exaggerated claims, misleading comparisons and all the other strictures observed by ethical advertisers. Of course, the danger exists that once these limits are observed, audiences will start asking themselves why they are paying $10 to see a two-hour long commercial. Perhaps they will conclude that the studio should be paying them! On the other hand, the possibility does exist that they will find the ads unobtrusive and the added budget a welcome contribution to film quality. Either way, introducing safeguards will ensure accountability to the audience. Of course, the true ethical ideal is a reverse kind of product placement: Not a crass materialism whereby hidden messages degrade a story into a commercial, but rather a noble spirituality that elevates a mere story into a lesson for life. After all, even without commercials a story is only a story - an inner moral and spiritual message is what gives it a soul. In this spirit, the Zohar teaches that the stories of the Torah are like the garments of a person, and the laws like the body. But the inner spiritual message of the text is its very soul. Like a subliminal message, a "hidden persuader," this soul is not evident to the casual reader, yet it has a powerful impact on his actions. Our society loves a good story. There's nothing wrong with a story, but we should be careful not to let hidden messages turn stories into commercials. If we reflect carefully on the sad state of the entertainment industry, we can aspire to something higher - hidden ethical and spiritual messages that turn mere stories into uplifting and inspirational examples. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in The Jerusalem College of Technology. He also is a rabbi.