“The act of a person who steals your screen is no different than the act of a person who steals your watch.”

So said a movie exhibitor newsletter – in 1925. The Hidden History of Product Placement also quotes a 1929 New York Times editorial railing against advertisers “sneaking onto the screen in dark and devious ways.”

In fact, advertisers had been “stealing the screen” from the very beginning, when the Lumiere Bros. teamed up with Lever Bros. Cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumiere very quickly realized what became standard practice for filmmakers who followed them: integrating products into movies (for a price) could help defray production and distribution costs.

Thus (from Hidden History):

In May 1896 . . . [Cinematograph] operator Alexandre Promio shot a film of two women hand-washing tubs of laundry. Placed prominently in front of the tubs were two cases of Lever Brothers soap, one with the French branding “Sunlight Savon,” the other with the German “Sunlight Seife.”

The following year, Thomas Edison “turned product placement into an ongoing business that provided twin benefits of reducing out-of-pocket production expenses while providing promotional services for customers of his industrial businesses” – as in, travel films subsidized by transportation companies.

From there it’s a straight line to 2009’s”Up in the Air,” starring George Clooney, American Airlines, and Hilton Hotels.

Via Advertising Age:

American Airlines and Hilton Hotels are prominently featured throughout the film — Mr. Clooney flashes his character’s American Airlines Concierge Key while characters stay at actual Hilton hotels in St. Louis and Miami — as integrated-marketing partners . . .

While there are more than enough unique branding moments for each sponsor to make their participation worth millions in media dollars, not a penny was exchanged to secure either placement. Instead, American and Hilton provided locations and branding that ultimately helped defray what would have otherwise been incrementally massive production costs for Paramount and Mr. Reitman, the director, to shoot the film’s many scenes in airports and hotels.

Product placement has grown to a $3.6 billion a year business, thanks in part to loose regulation and very little public outcry. Witness the reader comments about this Bloomberg Businessweek piece from March, 2010. They reflect three basic reactions to product placement:

One, product placement on reality TV doesn’t count, since it’s the real world where products already exist.

Two, product placement is great because it allows us to watch shows on our own time and have them still make money, and we don’t have to watch long commercials.

Three, ads don’t work on me, so who cares?

Who cares are these folks (among others):
Commercial Alert
The Benton Foundation

Writers Guild of America

Parents Television Council

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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