Product PlacementThere are few things in modern television that cause people to shudder more than the mention of product placement. It conjures images of branded items placed blatantly in shots — conversations inexplicably held next to billboards, characters randomly highlighting props for no reason, or cups and bottles in hand or on tables. 30 Rock summed it up nicely — the entire cast discussed their love of a certain drinks brand, halfway through a scene, followed by Tina Fey looking directly at the screen and asking; “Can we have our money now?”

But is product placement really such a bad thing? Does it really go so far towards ruining television and movies?

Product placement doesn’t have to be harsh and intrusive. In television and film, people will always need to use props and, unless you are able to create your own non-branded versions of every product and utility, you are going to have to show some brands. If the producers have to use props, what’s wrong with getting some money for using certain brands? People use Macs, so what’s the problem with having your characters using them? People drive different brands of cars, or consume certain brands of food and drink. What’s wrong with it being one over another, if the product company will pay for it?

Should we really have a problem with product placement? Television shows are interrupted with advertisements all the time. Isn’t it better to integrate them into the shows themselves, giving us fewer intrusive ad breaks, and letting it blend with the show?

The problem is that is has to be organic, or it pulls you out of the story. It’s one thing to do this in reality television where we’re aware of the unreal nature of the proceedings, but in drama the reminder of the artificiality is not wanted. Audiences want to lose themselves in the fantasy, not get drawn out for ad breaks.

A famous example of bad product placement is in Alex Proyas’ I, Robot. The main character has an entire scene dedicated to him putting on his Converse trainers, and throughout the movie characters refer to how they look. At no point does it have anything to do with the plot. All it did was highlight the product, and everyone watching the film is aware that these moments were designed as an in-story advertisement break. It ruined the enjoyment of the film, and was the main thing anyone remembers of it. Whatever the quality of the movie itself, it will always been known as the film with the Converse trainers. Great for the product, bad for the film.

But if you just let it flow with the story, we can accept it. In an episode of Modern Family, the entire plot revolved around the hunt to acquire an iPad for one character’s birthday. This too was blatant product placement, but it fit the story and the characters and didn’t pull the viewer out. Engagement to the storyline wasn’t broken.

Product placement is simply a fact of life in modern entertainment, and one that is more widespread than we realise. It’s simply up to the writers and producers to ensure that it works. Otherwise, viewers will just see their shows as extended advertisements, and stop watching.