Most product placement is overt and mutually beneficial. The property needs money and the product needs exposure. It is usually obvious to all that a transaction is taking place.
Some placement, however, is instructive and educational. During the early HIV/AIDS days pharmaceutical companies paid my agency to imbed messages about being able to live with the virus that causes HIV/AIDS by knowing your status and adhering to a prescription regimen.
Before that, entire segments of the population suffered even though there was hope. The placements educated them. Features and benefits can be better made clear when they are demonstrated, rather than just listed in a 30-second commercial.
Ultimately it's a business, not a conspiracy.
In the film, Spurlock disparages Volkswagen because the company didn't support him, and at times gives the products he is trying to promote attributes they don't posses, such as in a segment when he is talking to Ralph Nader, trying to sell him on a pair of shoes from a well known shoe company. He tells Nader they are made in America, and at that point a super comes on the screen that reads "Actually, they are made in China." Later in the film, he gives Nader a pair of the shoes as a gift.
He makes fun of Mane and Tail, originally a horse shampoo now marketing to both equines and humans, which he genuinely believes is a weird product. Then in another scene he asks for their business with a straight face.
The fact is that people who do product placement place their brands in natural situations, in scenes where the brands are shown in the best possible light. When Tom Cruise put on Ray Bans I wanted a pair, not just because he looked cool but because I thought they would make me look cool, too. Product placements get the nuances and make that work for the brands they represent.
I would have liked Spurlock's movie a whole lot better if he had stared directly into the camera at the beginning and said he wasn't comfortable with the idea of brands infiltrating entertainment and so he was going to make a movie at the expense of an industry to make his point.
I didn't walk away believing I understood the business and could make an informed decision about what was wrong or right about it. My takeaway was that Morgan Spurlock knows how to put a spin on things and wondered what subject his next movie was going to spoof.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.
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