Sunday, September 13, 2009

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A recent re-run of CSI New York, where Danny Messer (rough and ready Italian New Yorker / science geek) and Sheldon Hawkes (African-American child prodigy medical examiner) are engaged in a deep and well-scripted dialogue about the current investigation, when Danny's 'cell phone' rings. The ring tone is Coldplay song, 'Talk', with the next 5-10 seconds of action plummeting into blatant, full-frontal product placement. After the show the ring tone was offered to viewers (in the USA) as a download.

What's wrong with this scene? For many viewers, perhaps not a lot; fans of Coldplay, for example, will have no doubt been delighted. The legislators who outlawed subliminal messaging would also be satisfied that absolutely nothing about this type of product placement can be construed as an attempt at unconscious and unethical influence. The producers get paid, providing vital, extra revenue to secure the employment of stars and staff alike, and the CSI junkies are safe in the knowledge that the series will continue to run, not just because it can make money for itself, but because CBS thinks it's worthy of a partnership first with Capitol Records.



I'm not a big fan of Coldplay; indeed, I'd go as far as to say that I don't like them at all. Even so, had Danny's ringtone been the Foo Fighters' latest single I wouldn't feel any different about this hard sell in the middle of a fairly decent crime drama series. I choose to watch it to escape from the mundane realities of work, bill-paying, shopping and so forth - a choice that already carries a hefty price tag. A quick check of my bank balance reveals that the current, full subscription for Sky TV is £47 a month; add to this the UK TV Licence at £142.50 per annum, the cost of maintenance and electricity to run receiver equipment and I estimate that watching this one episode of CSI New York has cost me about 40p.

On top of this, the one hour of broadcast time given over to the episode contains anywhere between 9 and 20 minutes of advertising. Then there's the 'message from our sponsors' - publishers of trashy crime fiction who lead me to question whether I want to be a member of the CSI demograph. Surely we're paying handsomely enough to enjoy our increasingly miniscule segments of entertainment in ad-free innocence? Instead, it's more akin to watching an illusionist's show, always on the look-out for the trick in case we unwittingly succumb to the powers of suggestion.

The BBC reporting a review of product placement on British TV so soon after Derren Brown's National Lottery prediction is ironic perfection. Accordingly, "There are currently strict rules against product placement and this ban would remain in place on BBC shows." (BBC News). Evidently, the strict rules still allow for Channel 4 to place the National Lottery product in the middle of one of its shows - a BBC production that is, lest we forget, advertising a commercial product. As if Derren isn't capable enough of using "suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship" to coerce his guests and viewers into doing whatever he wants them to do; product placement is pure serendipity for the man allegedly banned from all casinos, not that I imagine he needs the cash.

All of this would be marginally improved by a revisit to the past, where Virgin won the contract for the National Lottery. Richard Branson promised a not-for-profit venture with jackpot capping - that's Virgin for you - palatable and benevolent as always. However, philanthropic as he might be, Sir Richard's capacity to purchase an entire island is a stark reminder that he is one of the most successful capitalists the UK has ever honoured. Aye, there's the rub.

Still, there's a significant difference between covering labels in soap operas to avoid accidentally endorsing a product and deliberate centre-stage shooting, with or without accompanying lack-lustre dialogue ("you're a great screen-writer, but what we need here is a couple of seconds about Fairy Liquid, you know, something like 'Know that I will always remember you, your hands as soft as your face...'"). The former is excusable to a certain extent. If it's 'real life' drama then of course we can expect the characters to be eating Cadbury's Dairy Milk, wiping with Andrex etc. But where does that fit in with the ineptly titled 'Britain's Got Talent'?

Product placement, according to an 'ITV spokesperson', "means better-funded content - which can only be good news for viewers". In other words, in a world where free online content and file sharing are essentially stealing revenue from the networks (providing viewers with more choice and control), blatant placement of products will shore up the jobs and salaries of all those terrified directors and CEOs. The extra marketing outlet will subsequently increase sales for manufacturers, the books will balance, so long recession. And they all lived happily ever after.

As a social scientist I've learned to 'switch off' in the ad breaks and then switch on again afterwards. I envisage a future where I won't just be mentally switching off, or indeed switching back on again.

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