Is product placement ethically questionable?

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Photo by Sagar Dani on Unsplash

The fear of being manipulated

Many people fear that product placement can subliminally manipulate them against their will, because it is often hard to clearly identify it as advertising (Balasubramanian 1994; D’Astous and Chartier 2000; D’Astous and Séguin 1999; Gupta and Balasubramanian 2000; Gupta and Gould 1997; Morton and Friedman 2002). These concerns are amplified again if we are not talking about consumers in general, but particularly vulnerable groups such as children (Auty and Lewis 2004; Tiwsakul and Hackley 2007), since knowledge of marketing tactics and advertising is developed over the years (Gunter, Oates, and Blades 2005; Macklin 1985, Mallinckrodt and Mizerski 2007; Moschis 1987). In fact, it seems that the natural presentation and seamless implementation of product placement might lead to less defensive reactions (D’Astous and Chartier 2000). Due to this and because product placement is often not consciously processed, it can be seen as subliminal advertising (Auty and Lewis 2004; Balasubramanian 1994).

However, in this discussion it is usually not taken into account that stimuli are also evaluated on a subconscious state of mind. This way, even subliminal advertising can be blocked automatically and without any conscious knowledge about it (Chartrand, Dalton, and Fitzsimons 2007; Laran, Dalton, and Andrade 2011). Therefore, also rather hidden advertisements can not manipulate people against their will. Nevertheless, you can still discuss about product placement and the ethics behind it. I will do so by briefly evaluating this marketing tactic, using the three dimensions of utilitarianism, deontological ethics and virtue ethics.

Our subconsciousness automatically protects ourselves from bad influences.

Further analysis

An evaluation of product placement with regard to utilitarianism checks whether the marketing tactic provides a general benefit to society. Basically, the benefit differs not significantly from other forms of advertising (Hackley, Tiwsakul, and Preuss 2008). However, also minor aspects, such as fears that the art of film is strongly negatively affected by product placement, need to be considered (Babin and Carder 1996; Hudson and Hudson 2006; Miller 1990), as this is quite relevant for society as well. However, whether this is indeed the case, highly depends on the individual placement and can’t be evaluated in general terms. As the audience rather appreciates the fact that films get more realistic by using real brands, than feels distrubed by it (Hackley and Tiwsakul 2006; Tiwsakul, Hackley, and Szmigin 2005), we can neglect this issue. Besides, this can be also interpreted as an indirect added value of product placement.

Considering the deontological ethics, it needs to be investigated whether product placement is good or bad, regardless of the consequences produced thereby. Consumers see this differently. While the mixing of editorial or artistic content with advertising is seen negatively in some surveys(Medienanstalt Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein / Vistas Verlag 2009), others show a strong acceptance (Gupta and Balasubramanian 2000; Nebenzahl and Secunda 1993, van Reijmersdal, Neijens, and Smit 2005). However, it should also be distinguished in terms of the respective product. Product placement for tobacco, liquor or weapons (Gupta and Gould 1997), but also very unhealthy food (McKechnie and Zhou 2003) is much more critical than placements for other product categories. However, the basic idea of product placement to bypass defensive reactions to advertising has to be seen critically from this point of view (DeLorme and Reid 1999; Hackley et al. 2008).

The virtue ethics deals with the intention of the sender, which is the relevant advertising company. This is very much dependent on the individual case and can not be answered in general at this point (Hackley et al. 2008).

Product placement is not that different from any other marketing or sales tactic.

Generally, to assess product placement in ethic terms is not that easy, because of its strong implicit effects. However, there are no big differences compared to other advertising types (Hackley et al. 2008). Therefore, it’s more a question about advertising in general and should never be about product placement specifically.
In any way, it would certainly be positive if consumers would get more information on available placements. The proposal by Hackley et al. (2008) to build an open register with information on all placements can be a solution — and would also help the companies, because people would asses placements more positively, when they don’t feel tricked.
There are and have been already some solutions that try to make this happen. Let’s see how this turns out in the long term!

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