Is it a story or an ad?
Q. Can I promote my product by having it unobtrusively written into a story?
A. The practice you refer to is known as “product placement”. We can hardly doubt that people 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 story-tellers (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 ET lead to skyrocketing sales for Reese’s Pieces. (Disclaimer: I didn’t get any benefits 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. We pointed out there that 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 not quite as serious. Since the practice is so common, no one 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. 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 U.S. Constitution.
Thus, a movie with product placement may need to be considered an advertisement. Indeed, a major 1980’s film with a product placement for cigarette brand was screened with a warning against the dangers of smoking, as required for cigarette ads. (Don’t expect my column to give added publicity to the film or the cigarettes.)
I don’t think there’s any need to forbid product placement, but I do think that two safeguards are necessary:
1. 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.
2. Artistic works with product placement have to conform to the more limited freedom of commercial works. If ads are forbidden to peddle junk food to kids or cigarettes to adults, then movies should be forbidden 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 ten dollars to see a two-hour long commercial. Perhaps they will conclude that the studio should be paying them. On the other hand, maybe 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.
In Judaism, the ideal is a reverse kind of product placement. Not a crass materialism whereby hidden messages degrades a story into a commercial, but rather a noble spirituality which elevates a mere story into a lesson for life. After all, even without commercials a story is only a story; the inner moral and spiritual message is what gives it a soul. Our tradition is filled with statements explaining that the events of the Torah are not merely stories, but rather carry a profound and often hidden message.
Commenting on the detailed description in the Torah of the encounter between Abraham’s servant and the family of Rebecca, the intended wife of Isaac, Rashi writes: “The everyday speech of the servants of the Patriarchs is even more beautiful to God than the laws of the sons.” Studying this story provides not diversion, but guidance for life, like the holy Law itself. (1)
And the Zohar teaches us 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 the very soul of the Torah. Like a subliminal message, 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.
SOURCES: (1) Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 24:42. (2) Zohar Behaalotcha III:152a.