Life As We Know It: March 10, 2014

        AS I sat at home confronting another WGTE deadline, I was looking at a can of Diet Coke, a small dish of M&Ms, and this morning’s Blade, and it hit me. I’m guilty of product placement. How ironic. The very thing I’m talking about -- the blatant placement of well known products in movies and on television, I’m doing myself in a radio commentary.

        And I don’t get a nickel from those guys for going out of my way to tout their wares. However, nearly everybody else does. You can’t watch a TV drama or sit-com these days, or watch a flick at the multiplex -- without spotting familiar products placed where you can’t miss them. Why use a plain can marked “soda” when you can sell that spot on the table to Pepsi or Mountain Dew?

        When the camera gets in close on a laptop we see clearly it’s an Apple. When Ford sponsored a so-called “ad-free” episode of one TV drama, Ford vehicles were used throughout. When it’s time fors the judges to get nasty on “American Idol,” they sip liquid refreshment from their bright red “Coke” cups. Are they really  drinking Coke? It doesn’t matter. They’re selling it anyway.

       Perhaps no other company has done as good a job as Coca-Cola in “branding” itself into the American consciousness. How many times have you asked a waiter or waitress, without even thinking about it, for a Coke, as though it’s a generic for all cola beverages? If they don’t serve Coke, you’re likely to hear, “Um, is Pepsi OK?”

        The point is that there’s a clear distinction between what is obviously paid advertising, say in a newspaper or during a commercial break on TV, and the sometimes not so subtle placement of a product that is supposed to be secondary to the story line. Often the lines are blurred.

        I’m OK with a can of soup bearing the likeness of Shrek. Hey, it’s a celebrity endorsement. If it’s good enough for an ogre…

        But should it have mattered what the alcoholic beverage of choice was in the movie, “Nights in Rodanthe”? It was Jack Daniels, by the way. Kellogg’s cereals are featured prominently in many movies. Same for Fiji water. Who can forget the exposure FedEx and “Wilson” the soccer ball got in Tom Hanks’ film, “Cast Away”?

        And how should we characterize NASCAR drivers? Aren’t they simply products placed in very fast and very loud cars? Almost every square inch of their uniforms is covered by an advertising message of some sort. I certainly hope those patches are as fire-retardant as their suits.

       A Victory Lane celebration at Michigan International Speedway last year featured the following product names or logos on the winning driver and his car: Cheez-It, Sprint, CarQuest, LifeLock, Kellogg’s, Gatorade, MAC Tools, 3M, Dow, and Holley carburetors. What, there was no room for the Beltone hearing aids ad?

       Product placement is hardly a new concept. Early television shows in the 1950s featured a girl who danced while wearing a giant cigarette box that left only her legs exposed. I think it was for Old Gold cigarettes. It was supposed to be entertainment, but who are we kidding?

       And on the old Texaco Star Theater, host Milton Berle was introduced by a chorus line of gas-station attendants, decked out in crisply pressed uniforms and bow ties, crooning the Texaco jingle: “Oh, we’re the men from Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico….”