While capitalism continues to exist, audiences will find themselves subject to an increase in product placement, as it is an effective practice for television and movie industries to fund their projects. This paper will analyze product placement specifically in the Canadian television industry because there is little funding available for Canadian producers, hence why product placement is a better alternative in order to generate Canadian content for its citizens. Since product placement will not disappear in the near future, it is important in how it is interwoven into television and movies, so that users are not irritated by the images. To illustrate branding in television, two shows will be considered and the ways in which they address product placement by their use of overt “product integration.” Product integration takes product placement a step further by actually merging the brand into the story, where the product becomes separate from the background (Wenner 113). The first show that will be analyzed is Being Erica, which was unsuccessful at integrating the Ford Focus into one of their episodes which led to its decrease in weekly viewership. Contrasting that, Corner Gas has been successful at integrating products into each of their episodes since an environment was created that made it possible. Therefore, Being Erica and Corner Gas will demonstrate the need for product placement in Canadian television to ensure that there is subsidizing available to keep these shows on the air, as well as identify when product placement is effective and when it is not.
Foremost, the development of product placement within the television and movie sectors has led to today’s overwhelming presence, as it is a quick way for producers to receive financing. As a result, the roots of product placement are commonly seen with the birth of cinema, since it is a medium that can showcase brands in real time. Nevertheless, Jean-Marc Lehu credits the creation of product placement with impressionist artists who used the technique in their paintings. For instance, branding can be seen in Édouard Manet’s painting of Un bar aux Folies-Bergère (refer to Figure 1) where the maiden stands with several bottles of Bass Beer on either side of her (Lehu 18). Cinema’s pioneers were merely influenced by these impressionist paintings, therefore they appropriated the technique and translated it onto film. Subsequently, product placement did not emerge from film but rather paintings, which signifies that there is a strong bond between visual culture and marketing. This has impacted today’s society who sees this tradition in advertisements, and for that reason civilians are more inclined to accept product placements in entertainment because they have been conditioned to do so.
During the 1950s there was a shift from obvious product placement – such as LKO/Universal Studio’s 1916 film She Wanted a Ford and Gordon’s gin featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail (Lehu 21) – to a more subtle form of product branding. Subliminal messaging became a popular concept in the 1950s, as advertisers were concerned that society was becoming naturalized to advertisements and hence people were filtering these product messages out. Advertisement filtering is referred to as a “sensory saturation [and] had naturalized the particularity of the hidden message, a view that was turning critical attention to a general condition of ‘overload’” (Acland 148). However, the lack of evidence that subliminal messaging actual worked led to the outcome of clever ways of integrating brands into storylines and character developments. Psychologists and advertisers realized that subliminal messaging did not truly work to its full benefit, which is why society saw another drastic shift towards humorous product placements. The 1970s is when this shift from covert product placement to overt placement happens, because “consumers [had] become more marketing savvy” (Karniouchina 27). By having a society that understands how marketing works, it leads to a competitive field, as companies want to impress the audiences. This influences a culture to surround the industry, which promotes and naturalizes product placements in movies and television. Society is already witnessing this culture, since any individual can look up on the internet the numerous amounts of blogs which rate movies that feature “the best product placement ever.”
Nevertheless, in regards to Canadian television, there is a need for product placement with the reason being that there is a lack of funding available for Canadian producers. As Kyle Asquith explains: “Integration is a current buzzword among advertising agencies and Canadian television upper management alike” (Asquith 100). If executed well, this is an effective practice for Canadian television producers to utilize as it will provide money to finance the show and keep it on the air. Still, it is one thing for producers to accept brands into their shows and work the script around it, and for Canadian brands to want to be featured in shows. As Simon Houpt found in his research on product placements in Canadian television, Pegi Gross told him that “We are, by virtue of our Canadianism, risk averse. Paying for product placement on a show that hasn’t been shot yet, it’s not something we would normally do” (Houpt 2009). Unlike American entertainment that has a larger budget to invest in anything, Canadian companies, producers, and networks are more careful where their money is spent. For that reason, it is important that when product integration is considered for a Canadian show, it needs to be done correctly so that it will be a beneficial investment for all parties. The following two cases will exhibit both sides of the spectrum of product placement used in Canadian shows. Being Erica is an example of product integration done poorly, while Corner Gas shows how it can be done effectively.
With the international success Being Erica has had, the producers became more daring with product placement by the fourth, and last, season. The eighth episode of the fourth season opens up with Erica and her business partner test driving a bright yellow Ford Focus, with a salesman in the backseat (refer to Figure 2). The segment unfolds as such:
SALESMAN. OK, time for the coolest feature – let’s park between those two [closely spaced] cars.
ERICA. What? There? That’s a little bit tight. I kinda suck at parallel parking.
SALESMAN. Trust me, so do I, which is why the Focus can parallel park itself! (Being Erica 2011)
Clearly, Ford pressured the producers of Being Erica to showcase the parallel parking feature as it is high-tech feature most are not used to. However, Jessica Leigh Johnston encompasses the general consensus viewers had after the premiere of the episode in a piece she wrote for the National Post, she comments: “I broke up with Erica, my TV BFF, because she tried way too hard to sell me a car” she continues that “some shows can get away with the integration of brand and story – as opposed to simple placement – that Being Erica attempted so jarringly” (Johnston 2011). To expand, the product integration is not effective because it is delivered in an overly rehearsed, salesman spiel that is off-putting to most. This also raises the concern that the producers assume that the audience members are roughly the same age as Erica (who is in her thirties) who also have a disposable income to comfortably afford a Ford Focus.
What would have worked better with the audience is if Erica used the feature in a crucial moment of escaping someone she recognized. She would have been able to showcase the Ford Focus’ capabilities of hands-free parallel parking, while the audience understands why the segment is featured in the show’s plotline. Another way to address the product integration would have been for a character to comment on how unnatural the salesman sounded, which would have acknowledged the clear product placement in the story. Instead the spot is a one-time, awkward insert into the episode that is not readdressed later on. In fact, the car is not shown again after that.
In contrast to Being Erica, product placement works for Corner Gas since it takes place in a gas station where products are expected to be. The audience members are not surprised to see products such as Lays chips, Sidekicks packages, Nature Valley bars, and cans of Coke on shelves in the background because they are already accustomed to this setting. Therefore, this type of product placement works because it is natural to the audience. In comparison with the Ford Focus spot in Being Erica it is not natural to the audience members as they are only used to seeing these images in pre-existing commercials and only in real life when they are actually shopping for a car. Overall, Being Erica tries to integrate the car in the show, yet it does not mix fully because there is no storyline to the car; it is simply a test drive which does not add to the plotline.
Alternatively, Corner Gas will integrate products into the show that will add to the characters development or will centre a plotline around it, so that the product shown “makes sense” to the viewer. For instance, in one episode the producers chose to feature 100% Canadian milk as the foundation. Canadian milk is integrated in the plotline by following a crush Wanda has on the gas station’s milk delivery man. Wanda spends the entire episode trying to impress him for his number (Corner Gas 2007). This is shown in Figure 3 by seeing the milk delivery man with the clear “Milk” logo on the truck and on his uniform. Even though 100% Canadian milk is not overtly acknowledged by the cast members, the audience can still mentally register the milk product placement, except they do not question it being there. The audience is able to make a connection to the product: Wanda works at a gas station which sells milk to its customers, and she so happens to have a crush on the person who delivers the milk. Going back to the Being Erica Ford Focus placement, the audience cannot make a link for why the test car is being shown. What is important to note is that the product featured in Corner Gas does not take away from the show’s narrative while in Being Erica it does.
Jean-Marc Lehu analyzes the technique of product placement and has found that “the vast majority of studies conducted on the subject confirm an overall tolerance among audiences for the placement of products or brands, and even an appreciation of the approach in certain cases of successful integration” (Lehu 64). Lehu’s findings can be seen after the infamous Ford Focus spot on Being Erica, as this segment caused the weekly viewership to drop from 367,000 to 243,000 the following week (Brioux 2011), whereas Corner Gas averaged roughly 1 million viewers each week continuously (Quan 2014). This shows that there is a skill for product placement, and that it is important to consider an approach to integrating brands correctly when writing scripts, or else viewers will not tune in on a regular basis because they are annoyed at the cheap insert of branding.
Janice Dawe – who is the vice-president of White Pine Pictures – comments on the frustrations of product placement and how “the kind of product placement a lot of brands want is distasteful to producers because it’s too overt to put into a storyline” (Houpt 2009). Dawe’s statement signifies that companies will have a greater say in how a product is displayed in a show, which means that there is not a balance between the creative content and brand messaging. If product placement continues in society, there needs to be more say from the production side than the company side, to ensure that shows remain foremost as entertainment, than commercialism. Corner Gas was able to be successful because it was one of the first Canadian television shows to combine a model of overt product placement with a hint of concealed messaging. Lawrence Wenner comments that there is “social evidence [that] suggests that consumer memory and evaluation of products are enhanced when a star uses a clearly identifiable product in a way that makes sense in a scene” (Wenner 104). This statement indicates that it is important for producers to dictate how the product will be featured, as they will most likely ensure it is done in a tasteful manner.
One of the major implications of product placement is that consumers are more prone to seeing a variety of brands that their favourite characters are using on the screen. Nonetheless, product placement is not the issue because it is a quick manner to fund movies and television, and will produce entertainment for society. If product placement becomes too irritating to consumers they will simply not return to that particular show or movie; they have the ability to shut it off as seen with Being Erica. Product placement in Canada can also be useful in promoting Canadianism to civilians as seen with Corner Gas’ promotion of Canadian products, such as 100% Canadian milk. There does not need to be a concern over this form of marketing if it is executed well, and if it is done with the right intentions.
Conclusively, Canadian television has the possibility to use product placement to create new Canadian content for citizens, however they must be consideration in how it is woven into the episodes or else it will not be beneficial to any parties. As the history of product placement has shown, there is a long-standing link between visual communication and advertising; it is not something that will easily end anytime shortly. Viewers are accepting with seeing brands in shows, it is rather just the method in how these products are sold to them that is cared about. Being Erica shows the implications of using bad product placement, and what it can do to weekly viewership. Corner Gas should be a model example to future Canadian producers who wish to create future television shows; if they do, they will be successful. Furthermore, the attitude that consumers are passive while they watch entertainment and are not fully aware that they are watching a show saturated with commercialism, is unreasonable. The consumer does not need a full-disclosure, because they are savvy with marketing tactics (Wenner 129). Instead, this paper suggests that for Canadian producers this is the opportunity to seize product placement and use it to support Canadian content, as well as companies, so that consumer money can be used to invest back into the Canadian economy. Corner Gas has started this legacy of successful Canadian television, and it should not go to waste.
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