Tobacco companies have found a loophole. As an industry that can claim to be one of the most regulated regarding marketing, tobacco companies have struggled over the years to find new ways to sell their products. While various forms of tobacco advertising have been systematically banned, including TV advertisements, the marketing executives at tobacco companies have found a new friend: product placement. Product placement is the mention or depiction of a brand or product, as it is integrated into the plot of a story, be it a TV show, a movie, a song, or a novel (Karrh, McKee, and Pardun). While traditional advertising has relatively obvious effects on the viewer, product placement is a less intrusive, yet surprisingly effective means to promote a product. This aim of this essay is to examine the effects that tobacco product placement in American TV shows has on the viewing audience. To do so, this essay will include a snapshot of the current presence of product placement in television, examine the depiction of tobacco in U.S. television programming, and review research on the effects of tobacco advertising on the viewing public, with an emphasis on the controversial results of tobacco product placement on children. As a conclusion is reached, the author of this paper hopes to come to an end that either supports or opposes the use of product placement for the promotion of tobacco products.
An Introduction to Product Placement
As defined earlier, product placement has become a useful tool for marketers to depict their goods and services in the center of pop-culture settings (Karrh, McKee, and Pardun). It is believed that product placement can have more of an impact on audiences than traditional advertising exposure has ever had, just because the viewer is exposed to the product while being in a more receptive mood. The popularization of the Internet has handed power over to the customer to choose which program they want to watch and when they want to watch it. Buyer power (Porter, 1998), by way of new media forms such as ‘on-demand’ television and online streaming services, has given the customer the option to skip through commercials and advertisements altogether. For this reason, product placement has become utilized more than ever before. Marketers are now using product placement as the center of multimillion-dollar campaigns to the point where productions face significant trade-offs between financial and creative considerations (Karrh, McKee, and Pardun).
Research shows that product placement will continue to grow in the future, as marketers strongly believe the TV format is the strongest deliverer of promotional messages. In the span of the first three months of 2011, Nielson researchers discovered over 5,000 product placements on primetime television and significant broadcasts and cable networks. During this time, TV advertising grew nearly 9% more than the same period the year before and earned $18 billion, mainly due to product placement. Consumers are now actively noticing branded products in TV sitcoms and are receiving these investments with a positive association (Crossett). Next medium, a marketing company that specializes in product placement buying, selling, and measurement, provides a summary of the industry’s growing presence in the U.S. market. In their review, Next medium quotes Nielson Media Research saying: “Brand recognition increased 29% for product placements during highly enjoyable programs”, they quote PQ Media proclaiming that “Paid product placement spending grew almost 34% to $2.9 billion in 2007”, and they quote ANA and Forrester Research reporting that “87% of advertisers believe branded entertainment is the key to TV advertising in the coming year” while “62% of marketers believe traditional ads have become less effective during the last two years (Next medium).
Tobacco Product Placement on TV
While tobacco product placement is not limited to television shows, seeing as product placement can apply to movies, sporting events, and even video games, it is of utmost interest to examine tobacco product placement about TV shows for several reasons. TV shows, whether they are animated, sit-coms, dramas, or reality shows, are a constant development. They are more versatile than movies or video games, in the sense that they can stay up-to-date with current pop-culture trends and values. It enables writers and producers to assure that the viewer can relate to the storylines. Furthermore, the potential viewership of one episode is rather high. As opposed to a commercial, an episode of a primetime TV show is viewed over and over again. Networks often show re-runs and viewers usually buy DVD box sets of their favorite series for repeated viewing enjoyment.
For reasons above, tobacco companies have specifically targeted TV as a source for promotion of their products. Although product placement is a relatively new form of advertising, tobacco companies have been aware of this technique for decades. In the 1980s, General Cigar Company signed a contract with product placement firm Keppler entertainment, which ensured that its products would appear on favorite TV shows such as Friends, Baywatch, Mad About You, Spin City, Suddenly Susan, and Third Rock From the Sun. The contract was ingeniously signed for a mere $27, 000 USD, and many of these shows are still being viewed today. In another instance, Warren Cowan, executive and president of public relations firm Rogers and Cowan, mentions his intentions in a letter to the head executives of RJR (a tobacco company), while describing the successful endeavors of a recent strategic marketing plan. He boasts that he has managed to convince prominent Hollywood stars of the time such as Michael Douglas, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Harold Robbins to smoke the RJR brand during the taping of TV talk shows (Mekemson and Glantz).
The Effects of Tobacco Product Placement
Tobacco product placement affects people in different ways, depending on various factors, such as their personality and whether they are an already a smoker or still a nonsmoker. The Journal of Neuroscience reports that scientists have discovered that when smokers witness someone smoking on-screen, their brain activity resembles the actual act of smoking. Therefore, smokers who are trying to quit have a harder time in doing so (Sample). Furthermore, smokers that witness a character smoking tend to consider this character more appealing. As for nonsmokers, some report having more favorable attitudes towards tobacco when observing the same scene (Gibson and Maurer). Combined with the theory of product placement, this suggests that when viewers notice a tobacco product on a particular program, they subconsciously associate the characters of that TV program with the brand. In turn, they associate the attitudes, lifestyle, and values of those characters with the tobacco product.
Exposure to Children
While it is discouraging to learn about the effects tobacco product placement has on adult smokers and nonsmokers, it is even more disheartening to learn about the level of exposure to children. A study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2000 combined U.S. census and Nielson data to find that 940, 000 kids aged 12-17 were exposed to images of tobacco use. One of the shows that contributed to these numbers was “America’s Next Top Model,” a show that promotes and sells ideas about beauty and image directly (Kaplan). In 2007, over 50& of television shows broadcasted in the U.S., while being rated PG (parental guidance suggested), showed cigarettes being used by on-screen characters and personalities (Cullen, Sokol, and Slawek). In 2011, the American Legacy Foundation, whose mission statement is “building a world where young people reject tobacco and anyone can quit” concluded that 40% of TV shows popular with children ages 12-17 contained images that promoted smoking, based on 70 episodes of primetime broadcast TV (Eggerton).
The Effects of Tobacco Product Placement on Children
In 2002, a team of researchers found, using a ten year longitudinal dataset, that among youth aged 10-15, (1) kid who watches less television is less likely to initiate smoking, (2) interventions to reduce television watching may also minimize youth smoking initiation and (3) television viewing should be included in adolescent risk behavior research (Gidwani, Sobol, and Dejong). Although some programming may consist of a negative connotation when portraying a character as a smoker, the problem lies in the fact that children may mimic characteristics regardless of whether it is a villain or a hero (Seppa). Furthermore, as children tend to watch videos of their favorite programs, again and again, there are tremendous ethical implications of using product placement in programs that are targeted at, or even merely available to children who have not yet fully developed their strategic processing skills. As they are not fully aware of the commercial messages to which they are being exposed, they are being affected by the exposure in a pre-conscious way (Auty and Lewis).
Before concluding, the author would like to draw a parallel by referring to the current situation in America’s leading economic partner and adversary: China. The Chinese Association on Tobacco Control (CATC) gives out an annual “Ashtray Award” for TV shows and movies that contain the most smoking scenes in a given year. This year’s award went to television production “Red Cradle,” in which 988 smoking scenes were recorded, 776 of them including depictions of the lead character smoking a cigarette. Chinese TV shows have a perennial advantage over movies for this esteemed award as nearly 87% of Chinese TV shows (down from 90% in 2010 and 93% in 2009) contain smoking scenes. However, thanks to the efforts of groups such as the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television and Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, not many covet this prestigious award. As of January 2011, the CATC has called for a ban on tobacco product placement, and as of February 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television has enforced this prohibition. The attitude of the State Administration and the CATC is one that shows that through effort and cooperation, drastic changes can be made. (Juan) (Ng)
The pairing of product placement and the tobacco industry is a result of extensively trained marketing executives at tobacco companies, who have been continuously put to the test and unfortunately, have emerged successfully. Nevertheless, it is essential to consider smokers that are trying to quit, nonsmokers, and children, and the evidently negative ways in which tobacco product placement affects them. As evidence shows, product placement is an intriguing and compelling way to advertise a product. It is an excellent way by which to keep the economy afloat in the movement of goods and services. In itself, product placement can serve a definite purpose, and it should not be misused to promote something that is neither ‘good’ nor a service. For the reasons above, this author believes that tobacco product placement should be banned, similar to the way most other forms of tobacco advertising has been prohibited.
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