Arguing Pop Culture: Product Placement Is Shameless Marketing

Written by JoAnna T. for English 101: Writing & Research at Westchester Community College, Fall 2014. 

Product placement is a method of advertising used to lure in consumers. Companies promote movies, television shows, products, brands, and even people when using product placement. Sometimes television shows or movies send subliminal messages to viewers advertising a product or introducing new trends. There has been a series of controversies due to product placement when viewers compare art to shameless marketing. While some people may argue it is “art”, others may feel a line has been crossed that should have been avoided. Once someone sees an advertisement, movie, television show, or other form of media, their subconscious mind is automatically toyed with. A marketer’s job is to make a profit and they will do anything they can to get into a viewer’s head for even a split second. Some forms of product placement could impact society, while others could destroy it. Negative influences may cause future issues. Product placement as a whole may be deceptive and unethical because it blurs the line between persuasion and manipulation.


Product placement consists of an advertiser or company producing content in order to sell something and is also known as product brand placement, in-programming sponsoring, or product integration. It is a marketing practice in advertising and promotion where a brand name product, package, signage, and other trademark merchandise is inserted into and used contextually in a motion picture, television, or other media. Advertisers are pushing their content more than ever before. Due to an increasing amount of media over the last decade, product placement has become an effective way to reach users and non-users. Persuasion and manipulation are cousins in advertising because they are very similar in goals, but very different in action. Influence is the ability to move a person or persons to a specific goal. Persuasion is the good and manipulation is the evil in marketing. Manipulation aims to control. Both elicit immediate action in advertisement. Sometimes viewers feel manipulated by the media and advertisements. People do not always agree with the way products are supposed to influence our daily lives. The mind is being toyed with.

There are three common methods used in advertising: Product Endorsement, Product Placement, and Subliminal Imagery. Consumers are known to make buying decisions based upon current emotions rather than logic. Product Endorsement is the most up front and honest method. This method is used to promote a product and person at the same time without the consumer even realizing it. The product is endorsed by a well-known figure such as a celebrity, singer, or major sports star. Product placement is the slightly sneakier version of product endorsement, and involves well known fictional figures to endorse products or services outside of a labelled commercial environment. The technique is frequently used in sitcoms and soap operas. Today there is even product placement in children’s cartoons and movies. Seeing a commercial break on television is a direct signal to viewers and they understand they are being sold to so they have their defenses up, but when the ads are over and the show returns, the guard becomes relaxed. During a television program or movie, viewers are open to suggestions they never saw coming. “It’s not just consumer goods that are marketed this way; awareness groups and even political campaigners use the same subliminal techniques to subtly get their message across” (Ferndale, 1). Finally, there is Subliminal Imagery, which is the most shameless form of advertising of all. It involves embedding images or words into a standard advertisement.

People are impulsive and curious by nature. There are people that are experts in studying consumer behavior in order to help consumers make better, smarter, buying decisions. Ian Zimmerman is a writer for the blog Psychology Today. He has a PH.D in applied experimental psychology and his goal is to promote better buying to consumers. According to the article, “Product Placement Can Be A Lot More Powerful than We Realize”, Product placement can directly influence our implicit attitudes, such that our attitude toward a TV program or film becomes unknowingly associated with products placed in that specific TV program or film. Specifically, the emotions we experience while watching the program are transferred to products placed in that program, though we’d be unaware of the transfer. One example is the 65% increase in Reese’s Pieces sales after its placement in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Zimmerman, 1).


A viewers’ conscious thoughts directly influence their implicit attitudes after seeing a commercial, movie, television show, or basic advertisement. Psychologists found viewers are more likely to buy something they identify with rather than something they like. For example, if a person feels they are connected to basketball, when an advertisement is shown with their favorite athlete for a charity or even brand of cereal, they feel compelled to donate money or purchase the item. On the other hand, if there was a regular advertisement for Hershey’s Reese’s Peanut butter Cups, viewers are not in a mad rush to spend money on the chocolate. Another great example would be the connection between the holidays. Consumers are easily manipulated during the holidays because of the themed commercials, ads, and persuasion that they are in for the perfect bargain. Even when the placement of the product is understood, that particular brand, and, consciously, its products will still influence consumers (Zimmerman, 2).

Product placement has been around as early as the 1920’s. It began with motion picture production in the 1890’s. In the early years, Thomas Edison films engaged in product placement. Radio shows in the 1920’s to1930’s used product placement right in the middle of their script. They had products woven into the script. One minute they would be in the middle of a comedy routine then somehow bring in Lucky Strike Cigarettes. A hybrid-message is a term used in the media when discussing product placement. Product placement was the intermarrying of family ties with business. It quickly became a way for advertisers and the movie industry to make a profit off of consumers with a subliminal exposure strategy. According to an article from, “The Hidden History of Product Placement”, Research traces the development of product placement from its earliest years to the breakthrough success of E.T. in the early 1980s and shows how product advertising had been intertwined with the business dealings of the motion picture and television communities from their earliest days (Newell, Salmon, and Chang, 1-2). The cost of product placement varies, yet ranges from $10,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. As time has gone by, the media and product placement marketing strategies have increasing become more influential. With so much media around people in the twenty first century, product placement has increased in television, movies, commercials, and even video games. Name brand companies sponsor T.V. shows spending insane amounts of money in place of or in addition to regular commercials.

Today, viewers do not have the attention span for commercials. They will flip channels, mute it, or walk in to the next room until their show returns. Advertisers have found ways to put their products into shows and movies, sending subliminal messages to viewers to buy their product. The company Glad, which sells food storage bags sponsors the hit television show on the food network, Top Chef. “Mise en place” means everything in its place and with Glad bags, each chef will be able to separate their foods and remain sanitary in order to win the title as Top Chef. In the third season of Top Chef, the episode “ Hung’s Smurf Village” glad boxes are stacked and displayed on countertops, just in case anyone should need them (Greene,1).


This is one of the most obvious and “worst” forms of product placement in the media, but positively promotes Glad’s products. People who feel they gain pure enjoyment and satisfaction from a show like Top Chef are more likely to purchase Glad bags. According to Ian Zimmerman, In addition to implicit attitudes, product placement can affect what’s called implicit self-identification. Implicit self-identification is automatically associating yourself with an object. (Zimmerman, 1) Viewers may associate cooking with Glad bags without even thinking about where they first saw the product. This occurs not only in movies and television shows, but music videos, and video games. Celebrities like Cindy Crawford and Britney Spears have been the face of Pepsi.


During the Super Bowl, the flirty, creative commercials play for men, women, and children of all ages. Add some catchy tunes and a sexy celebrity and you’ve got a hit super bowl commercial. From then on, Pepsi would be associated with that celebrity until they decide to sponsor someone new. For celebrities that are popular or becoming popular, companies approach them to be the face of their brand, where in turn views with further associate the celebrity with the brand and vice versa.


Product placement in video games began in the 1980’s with racing games featuring billboards with not only just pizza and soda, but for cigarette companies like Marlboro and alcohol as well. Exponentially, the buying of video games has increased overtime. Children and youth are heavy media users and adapted to the newest technologies. Media marketing companies use television, social media, and gaming to influence children. According to the article, “Children as Consumers: Advertising and Marketing” by Sandra Calvert, Although television is still the preferred medium for reaching children and youth, marketers are exploring how to reach this age group online using cell phones, iPods, game platforms, and other digital devices. Banner ads, for example, which resemble traditional billboard ads but market a product across the top of an Internet page, appear on most webpages.“Avergames” integrate products such as cereal and candy into online video games to sell products to youth (Calvert, 1). People are influenced by product placement in their subconscious mind. There are triggers to having the desire to go out and purchase a specific product. It could be based upon a certain season, holiday, or popular culture.

“First, psychologists have actually found we’re more likely to buy something we identify with than something we like. Second, it shows that even when we view placements skeptically they can still give us a favorable inclination toward placed brands. Taken together, this means that we might buy products we’ve seen placed in TV or films even if we view the placements as an attempt at manipulation” (Zimmerman, 2).

After understanding the bare basics about product placement, there is another side to this marketing technique. Some may not agree with this claim, but other viewers may feel they have noticed some advertisements that weren’t so innocent. Children, teens, and even adults are easily influenced in today’s society due to the broad access to the media. According to the article, “Propaganda: How Not to Be Bamboozled” by Donna Woolfolk Cross, There are different types of propaganda out there. Propaganda is simply a means of persuasion and so it can be put to work for good causes as well as bad (Woolfolk Cross, 71). Propaganda may determine the brand of toothpaste, shampoo, and food people purchase in their daily lives. Propaganda works by tricking people, momentarily distracting the eye. According to an article featured in Smashing Magazine by Claire Stokoe, although propaganda is often used to manipulate human emotions by displaying facts selectively, it can also be very effective at conveying messages (Stokoe, 1). People are tricked mainly because they do not understand what they are exposed to. For those who understand they are being ‘lied to’, the question becomes: “how can I not allow this to affect my family or corrupt my morals?”


One of the most effective uses of hidden messages in mainstream advertising is the “sexual connection”. Sex conjures up strong emotions of power, pleasure, and well-being, and so if an advertiser can tap into those at will he has a powerful tool indeed – no pun intended” (Ferndale, 1). Many companies have found a way to make something that isn’t meant to be sexy, sexy. The 2012 commercial for Sketchers sneakers featuring Kim Kardashian shows no more than a few brief seconds of the sneaker at the end of the commercial. The rest of the advertisement is all about Kim’s body and a man that’s all over her. There’s very little content on the shoes or why women should wear them. This is only one vague example of shameless marketing. As the saying goes, “sex sells”, but sometimes companies cross a fine line. According to an article from, many people disagree with this movement, and find that using sex in advertising is the failure to be creative. If you can’t come up with a great idea, the last resort is to use sex. Many people have different beliefs and religions they follow/go by. Most people will find it offensive when ads showcase inappropriate body parts, or sexually engaging messages ( Children look to ads, television shows, music videos and overall media as their source of entertainment, which can negatively influence their subconscious mind if they see inappropriate images aimed toward the products, foods, and characters or celebrities they idolize.

Music is represented as art, but could also be deceiving to society, especially to those who admire an artist. There are subliminal messages within a lyrics people may not be aware of. This is false advertising and manipulative to the viewer’s mind. The hit song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke released in March 2013 has led to many controversies, which occurred because of the Blurred Lines music video because people felt it represented misogynistic views, which is the hatred of women or girls, as well as promoting date rape. Subliminally the lyrics within this hit single is geared toward influencing men to view women less than their worth. It gives off sexual vibes causing male listeners to think of a woman as a pet. The music video shows three models topless in the explicit version. In a world where pop-culture is the primary influence in the lives of adolescent and young adult viewers, the messages lurking inside of a song or music video becomes shameful when there are too many innuendos at once. In the commercial advertisement for the Beats Pill by Dr. Dre, the speakers are suggestively represented in a negative, sexual manner. The models that were in the original music video are in the thirty second commercial as well as posing provocatively with the pill suggesting it has a similar shape to male genitals.


The commercial represents shameless marketing opposed to art because the company is using a song that was deemed sexual to advertise. Although viewers under eighteen years of age may not understand the innuendos, it is still shameful to use a song like Blurred Lines to get consumers to purchase a speaker system. According to an article from, “Robin Thicke Speaker Advert Banned from Early Showing for Being too Sexual” by Sean Michaels:

In complaints to the ASA, viewers asserted that the Beats Pill advert was sexist, degrading to women, and too “overtly sexual” for underage viewers. According to the official report, “some complainants [also] challenged whether the models featured were irresponsibly thin” (Michaels, 1).

When there are too many influences in the daily lives of young adults, the line between art and shameless marketing have been crossed. Young minds are easily influenced and advertisements make it easy to alter ones morals. People are taken advantage of right before their eyes in more ways than they will ever understand.

Opposing viewers could argue that it is up to the viewer to control how advertisement affects their daily lives. According to, Bob Burg discusses the meaning behind his book “Turning Adversaries into Allies”:

A frame is the foundation from which everything evolves. Set a frame of kindness, cooperation, win/win and benevolence and a very mutually beneficial result will most likely occur. It’s powerful. “Set the proper frame and you are 80 percent of the way to a successful outcome for everyone involved. On the other hand, be wary of those who use this concept in order to manipulate you” (Burg, 1).

Consumers control what products they purchase, which advertisements they allow to influence them, and how it affects their emotions. People cannot completely blame product placement for all of their troubles. People have the freedom to choose, no one is forcing anyone to believe in something. Every individual has the power to master their emotions, understand their belief systems, acknowledge their ego, set the frame, and communicate with others. Burg’s book not only teaches people how to accomplish their business or life goals, but overcome influences. This could even contribute to the media and pop culture. Human nature allows people to think that the majority of people think alike and that is part of the reason why there is so much corruption in daily life. People are allowed to take a step back, but they must have the strength within themselves to do so. Product placement does not influence everyone. It is up to each individual to hold on to their morals and obtain a sense of self.

Throughout history, product placement has impacted companies and taken a toll on society. It is only getting more and more difficult for people to come to terms with their own values when constant media is thrown in their faces. Every commercial, television show, movie, and advertisement people see is a direct message for consumers to act upon or come to believe in. If a commercial states that “This is as good as it gets!” People do not even have the opportunity to allow their creative minds to understand the deeper meaning behind why the product is better or could possibly impact their life. There is so much influence today that it is hard to control one’s desires. The subconscious mind takes over without any warning. Product placement is unethical and deceptive because people do not understand the fine line between persuasion and manipulation. Society is desensitized to mass media and have grown to lack individuality as pop culture has become primary to daily life. Product placement does not necessarily have to be stopped, but it should be censored for particular audiences.


Jojo ipod 023JoAnna is a freshman at Westchester Community College majoring in Liberal Arts and Social Science. She has a passion for health and fitness as well as business in hopes to empower young adult women. You can find her on  Instagram here; she has also started to build a website to inspire others.  You’ll always manage to find her with a protein shake or nutrition bar in her hand during class. 

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