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October 19, 2003

All The Brands That Fit To Print

We have been so bombarded with commercial messages, brand consciousness has begun to permeate our most basic communication. I was in an airport a few months ago listening to a man going through a checklist with his wife. “…And, did you bring the MCI Calling Card?” he asked. It wasn’t, “the calling card,” it was “the MCI calling card.”

I am particularly distracted by product placement in movies. I was taken aback recently by a scene in “Matchstick Men,” where the young actress, Alison Lohman, basically broke into a Ben and Jerry’s commercial, twice telling Nicholas Cage (nice and slowly) that she was eating “Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Super Fudge Chunk.” (The carton she was eating it out of was also twice as big as any I’ve ever seen.)

What was more troublesome than this, though, was what happened the other night while I was watching a DVD of the film, Cactus Flower (which I’m pretty certain pre-dates paid product placement in films). What was weird was that, I couldn’t help noticing that Goldie Hawn was eating Laura Scudder’s potato chips, and that she was carrying around a Coca-Cola bottle. I also clearly took note when Hawn mentioned to Walter Matthau that his supposed wife, Ingrid Bergman, must own a Volvo. Near the end of the film, I also couldn’t help registering that Bergman needed an Alka-Seltzer.

It’s one thing when intentional “brand bombing” catches your attention. It seems different, though, when you begin to experience the echo of brand references in spontaneous or unsponsored communication.

Which brings me to last week, and something odd on the front page of the New York Times. What I suddenly noticed was, they were infected too!

My understanding of journalistic convention (at least for a news story) is that a product reference is supposed to be generic. In other words, if a person is having a Mountain Dew and the brand is not central to the story, it should be referred to as a “soda.” Likewise, if an SUV or a pick-up truck is involved in an accident, it should be referred to as an “SUV” or a “pick-up truck,” not a Chevrolet Suburban or a Toyota Corolla.

Of course, it occured to me it might not be an accident. The Times, for example, might also be getting in on the product placement action. Either way, I don’t consider it a good sign. Intentional or inadvertent, it’s disheartening to discover that such a central and professional source of communication (“the paper of record”) has joined the echo chamber.

(New York Times — front page
Monday, October 13, 2003):

ToyotaBlast.jpg

(New York Times — front page
Wednesday, October 15, 2003):

MountainDew2.jpg

(New York Times — front page
Thursday, October 16, 2003):

SuburbanGaza.jpg

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