When is a ‘product placement’ like a print ad?

Product placement is so ubiquitous these days that we hardly blink an eye (or perhaps even really notice) when the main character in our favorite crime drama swigs from that Coca-Cola bottle on his desk.  The branded product is there, and perhaps we might be enticed to emulate our hero, but few people are talking about the ethics of such stealth advertising.  However, when it comes to such a maneuver on the nightly news, there are those on the moral high road who seem to think that this just might bias those reporters who are reading the news with branded coffee sitting in front of them (and whose brands paid a fee for the up-front placement).  But – then what makes this different from newspapers carrying paid advertising? 

For years people have decried the notion that advertisers may or may not influence the reporting on related subjects and this argument has lost its oomph.  But now this new approach (which is largely the very same thing) seems to have reporters up in arms.

Yesterday’s New York Times reported on the recent acquisition made by a Fox News affiliate in Las Vegas – that being a product placement on the desks of their reporters on the morning show.  Those products are cups of McDonald’s iced coffee.  Here are the questions that this raises:

1.       Is this really any different than print advertising in a newspaper or magazine?

2.       Should those coffee cups still be there on the morning when a negative story about the product’s owners shows up?

3.       Would this lucrative revenue stream really result in omitting said negative report?

As usual, we move forward in strategic communication and marketing approaches without really facing and answering the inevitable ethics questions.  That’s why we often don’t have an answer for people like the fine folks at PR Watch who are watching our every move.  Perhaps it’s time we started answering those question before taking action.

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