E.T. On Product Placement: Extra Tempting or Extremely Tormenting?

by Dank Woes on June 19, 2015 - 1:33pm

            In today’s society, the media, whilst still being an intangible concept that is difficult to define, has become a force powerful enough to connect the entire population of the planet, turning thoughts into actions, and actions into change.  Being able to greatly amplify one’s voice through platforms such as the radio, newspapers, television etc. is both a blessing and a curse: with access to the rapid and easy spread of information also comes an enormous amount of responsibility.  

            Manufacturers of cosmetics, foods, electronics and various other services pay to have their products cleverly integrated into movies and on television to promote them in a way that is effective, but slightly subtler than the typical advertisements that bombard one’s everyday life on the radio and on TV.  This phenomenon is what is known as Product Placement.

            Product Placement, however, is not as straight-forward as it may sound, and in fact poses a complicated moral question: is it merely a harmless, creative way of advertising products that would otherwise be displayed on billboards and in their own commercials—or does it actually cross a line into what is considered unethical?

            Firstly, those who believe that the practice of Product Placement is ethical could argue that it allows for manufacturers to reach a wider demographic, meaning that more people will feel tempted to purchase the product, and in turn, the economy will prosper.  Evidence shows that people do, in fact, respond positively to product placement, in that after having seen the object or service being displayed, they are more likely to go out and spend money on it.  The film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, released in 1982, clearly demonstrates this phenomenon: the film has a famous scene in which the loveable extraterrestrial is lured out of a hiding spot by the small yellow, orange and brown chocolates contained in a familiar orange wrapping—Reese’s Pieces.  In the two weeks following the release of the movie, Reese’s Pieces sales increased by a whopping 65% (“The Stories Behind 10 Famous Product Placements”). 

            In order to determine how ethical this practice is, one can look at it from various theoretical frameworks.  Deontology (put forth by John Merril) has to do with “duty, with following formalistic rules, principles, or maxims”.  If one follows these rules (such as always giving the sources of quotes in a news story, or returning a wallet filled with money despite wanting to keep it for personal gain), then they are ethical; if one breaks these rules, they are unethical (Merril 25).  From this honesty-based perspective, product placement can be deemed unethical because it does not allow for one to exert one’s own free will.  The article “The Hidden History of Product Placement” verbalizes the fact that “the act of a person who steals your screen is no different than the act of a person who steals your watch” (Harrison, 1925).  However, one could argue that it is in fact ethical from a deontological perspective because the products are being displayed in a way that is realistic—that is, the items shown actually exist and can be purchased in real life—and less invasive than the typical commercials that are thrown out almost violently on television and on the radio.  

            Another theological perspective that determines whether or not a given practice is ethical is Teleology—the consequence-based theory that suggests that the outcome, known as the summon bonum, that brings the most happiness to the greatest number of people is the most ethical (Merril 25).  This “rule”, known as utilitarianism, was formulated in the 19th century by the founding father of this framework, John Stuart Mill.  From a teleological perspective, Product Placement can be deemed unethical due to the fact that it actually displays its given products and services without the public’s permission.  It catches the viewer off-guard—one may think they are simply sitting back to enjoy a movie or an episode of their favourite TV show, but halfway through pops up a can of Coca-Cola or an iPhone—and all of a sudden the underlying motive is revealed, which leads to a feeling of having been cheated and manipulated by manufacturers.  On the other hand, product placement could also be viewed as being ethical from a teleological perspective, as it does lead to an increase in purchases, which in turn brings in a higher income to manufacturers who are specifically paying to have their products displayed to the public. 

            So, finally, what actually is the right answer?  Well, there is arguably no such thing.  From both a deontological and teleological perspective, there are aspects of Product Placement that are problematic, such as the infringement on one’s own free will, as well as positive, such as an increase in income for manufacturers.  It all boils down to one’s view on consumerism and being tempted into spending money—yay, or nay?


Works Cited

Conradt, Stacy.  “The Stories Behind 10 Famous Product Placements”.  MentalFloss. April 2008.  Web.  June 2015. <http://mentalfloss.com/article/18383/stories-behind-10-famous-product-pl...

Merill, John C.  “Overview: Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics,” 3-32 in A. David Gordon, John M Kittross, John C Merill, William Babcock, and Michael Dorsher (eds.), Controversies in Media Ethics, 3rd Edition (New York: Routledge, 2011)

Newell, J, Charles T. Salmon, Susan Chang.  “The Hidden History of Product Placement”.  Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 50. 4 (2006): 575-594.  Ebsco Host.  Web.  June 2015.  <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,ur...


Ya chill. I love Reeces. I dig it bruh.

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