In (Qualified) Defense of Product Placement

It turns out that poor, pokey NBC, home of much beloved, wildly creative sitcoms like Community and Parks and Recreation, is the network most willing to trade product placement for financial support for its shows. And while I suppose I should be up in arms about the marching corporatization of our entertainment, I can’t say that the supposed evils of product placement are at the top of my list.

First, there’s a difference between using product placement to make already-cheap shows cheaper, as is the case with reality television as NBC does with The Biggest Loser and The Celebrity Apprentice, and using product placement to subsidize quality but low-rated programming as NBC has done with Friday Night Lights and Chuck. Using donated products to carry out the same repetitive rituals doesn’t actually make the formula of a predictable competition show any more predictable, or the emotional arc of the show any less manufactured. And the small but dedicated audiences for those other kinds of shows are aware enough to recognize artifice when they see it, and to appreciate that they’re enjoying something that’s been kept alive by something other than pure audience size. Better Chuck with the Subway references than no Chuck at all, I guess.

More to the point, the assumption that characters wouldn’t use brands and talk about products actually runs counter to reality. We all have irrational brand loyalties, and talk about products, and recommend stuff to each other. It’s not some dramatic distortion of the universe of the show, as long as the characters aren’t Amish or live in a socialist future, for characters to talk about the things they buy and why they like them.

And finally, for the most part, we’re not dumb. People know what product integration is, and that it’s being done to them. Not every show is going to be 30 Rock and laugh at the concept even as it uses it:

But even if people end up buying a Snapple because Liz Lemon likes it, or shampoo because it makes Robin’s hair look fantastic on How I Met Your Mother (I just started watching, and her hair), or test-driving a car because the main character on Castle does it, this is hardly the worst thing to happen. And for the most part, I suspect people know why they’re doing what they’re doing. It may be foolish to think that I can ever look like Jennifer Morrison without a set full of dresses, extensive plastic surgery, and a magical application of extra tallness. But if I spend a few dollars occasionally because I dig her eye shadow, no harm, no foul, in the indulgence of the fantasy and its immediate debunking.