This week’s Wednesday Rant takes a look at product placement.

Product placement is indicative of the modern era.  Products get facetime in TV shows, movies, video games, sporting events…pretty much any entertainment medium you can think of.  It started out innocuous enough; on gameshows and talk shows, where things were given out as prizes, the unveiling was an advertisement.  This had a comfortable, almost endearing quality to it…a quick shot of the product, maybe a one line motto, and that was it.  TV shows were basically saying “We gotta pay the bills somehow, but we’re going to do this as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.  Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Products began to slowly find their way into movies, but in the early days they still fit within the context of what was happening.  They weren’t focused on, they were just “present” in the shot (such as a can of Pepsi on a desk, or a Bell phone book.)  Now, you get a five-second shot of the top of a phone, or a closeup of a car’s grill with the company’s logo right in the center.  It becomes blatantly obvious that certain scenes in movies are there just as an advertisement, sometimes stopping a movie dead in its tracks.  It’s fine if the advert is well-incorporated into the movie or TV show and doesn’t get in the way (such as Taco Bell in Demolition Man, or the numerous products shown in The Big Bang Theory), but unless the product or name is presented in a natural way, it just destroys the immersion factor.

Proper product placement involves natural “observer” shots showing someone doing what they would normally do.  For example, there’s a scene in an IT Crowd episode where the characters are playing Guitar Hero while having a conversation.  The shot is from an angle on the same side as the TV, so all you see are the controllers.  That doesn’t bother me…they very likely would be playing Guitar Hero, and the product is displayed in an unobtrusive way.  Not only that, but the conversation they have in the scene contributes to a character’s development on the show.

Another great example would be The Big Bang Theory.  Every scene is PACKED with product placement…yet it’s all presented in a “natural environment” sort of way.  The camera doesn’t focus specifically on any one thing, it just overlooks an apartment filled with geeks.

Ooh, look! He's using an Alienware! And drinking Dasani! Oh, and the cordless phone...I have that one! Oh, and check out the solved Rubik's Cubes sitting on that bookshelf!

A closeup on someone dramatically completing a normally mundane task while simultaneously singling out a specific product or company is NOT proper; all it does is piss people off.  Never has someone looked more pleased after tying their shoelaces than Will Smith in I, Robot.

Get your shoe off the chair, you smug bastard.

This is also true for video games.  Fight Night Round 3 was an amazing game when it was released early on in this generation, but the blatant advertising was just way too far gone.  One of the fights opens up by focusing on a Dodge Calibur for a solid 20 seconds.  There is a 3D model of a Calibur parked next to the boxing ring. The introduction for the fight is, quite literally, a commercial for the Calibur that happens to take place in a boxing ring. I realize that boxing is a sport filled with adverts, but come on…one of the corner men was the freakin’ Burger King.

Really? REALLY???

In the end, I don’t really mind product placement so long as it doesn’t destroy the immersion I have with a game or movie.  It can sometimes be done in a humorous way (as evidenced by Demolition Man), it can be done in a subtle way (as evidenced by The Big Bang Theory), and it can be done in soul crushingly horrible ways (as evidenced by Fight Night Round 3.

Oh yeah, and sometimes it can just be done in an awesome way.

I forgive you, Blade Runner.