Product Placement Saves the Music Video Star?

Curator's Note

Perhaps you haven’t heard, but the music industry is facing a bit of a crisis. In the decade since Napster, the music industry has been plagued by rising reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for music they can find online for free.  Add to this MTV & VH1’s shift away from airing music videos (an important promotional tool), and the result is an industry desperately looking for a way to rescue its finances.

With the loss of MTV & VH1 as reliable outlets for music videos, Vevo (billing itself as "the Hulu of music videos") has come forward to fill the gap—liaising between musicians/labels, advertisers, and content providers such as YouTube.  One of Vevo’s key strategies to maximize revenue has been to develop more product placement deals, so that music videos are becoming increasingly rife with ads.  The videos at left illustrate this increase—the first edits together clips from several music videos to demonstrate the prevalence of integrations; the second focuses solely on the most egregious of these videos, Lady Gaga’s "Telephone" video, which features a full 13 instances of integrations from Virgin Mobile to Polaroid to Miracle Whip.  To my mind, this effort has been successful in increasing the promotional power of music videos without huge sacrifices to quality of content.

As my fellow curators this week have discussed, one of the primary complaints about increased product placement in media is a concern that integrations privilege the revenue-generating ad over the narrative function of the content.  But how does that argument work when applied to music videos which, although arguably narrative, are more about the music than the storytelling?  Does Gaga’s use of Diet Coke cans as hair rollers disrupt the "story" of "Telephone"?  It perhaps interrupts the story being told in the short film that serves as a music video in this case, but it certainly doesn’t disrupt the narrative of the song itself—only the visual experience of the video.

Despite the concerns of some, perhaps product integrations in music videos are an acceptable consequence of the shifting economics of the music industry.  As Aymar Jean Christian explains, these integrations should be viewed as an industry’s desperate attempts to maintain its bottom line, not necessarily as a creative sacrifice.  Although admittedly eyeroll-inducing, watching Britney Spears hawk her own perfume in "Hold it Against Me" seems a small price to pay if it means the industry can survive to create more music.

Comments

Nedda Ahmed's picture

"High" Culture vs. "Low" Culture?

Great post, Erin!

Your post, and the post from yesterday on Morgan Spurlock’s new film, got me thinking about the high/low culture divide. Do you think product placement in a music video may be more palatable because the medium was created mainly for marketing purposes? Rampant product placement might also be more acceptable in movies that are "blockbusters"—made with the clear intent to rake in audiences, and money, for the movie studios.

People who go to art galleries and museums, on the other extreme, would find product placement in a piece of contemporary art completely offensive unless the work was inherently critiquing popular culture and commercialism. Is the lack of commerciality a defining characteristic of high art? Is that the last "sacred" space?

Erin Copple Smith's picture

Excellent Point

Thanks, Nedda—this is a great point, and one that certainly gets to the heart of the debates swirling around product placement.  In virtually all cases, the primary gripe about the practice is its disruption of the "purity" or "sanctity" of content—whether that be creative/artistic or narrative.  In cases where the text being disrupted is widely considered less pure in terms of its creativity/artistry/narrative function, the complaints are generally fewer.

There’s a great piece by James P. Roberts in Media, Culture & Society titled "Revisiting the Creative/Commercial Clash" that gets at this issue in excellent detail and the necessary nuance.  Roberts essentially calls out the false dichotomy that’s been drawn between the creative and the commercial, and argues that one does not necessarily render the other obsolete.  In other words, it’s possible to have successful commercial art—commercialism doesn’t always negate creativity.  It’s a fantastic read; I highly recommend it if you’re interested in these issues!

Aaron Arkin's picture

You made many good points

You made many good points throughout the article, particularly when you raised the question, "Does Gaga’s use of Diet Coke cans as hair rollers disrupt the "story" of "Telephone?" To answer the question from a personal point of view, no. Having said that however, I don’t let it detract from the music or narrative because I am aware of it’s presence purely as product placement. I believe product placement is acceptable if done discreetly. I am not an avid watcher of music videos so I’m not bothered by the heavy emphasis on product placement within them, but I am bothered by it when watching a movie that blatantly advertises a company like Motorola as part of their film. Lower budget productions like music videos can greatly benefit from product placement which makes it acceptable. A films quality on the other hand is greatly compromised in some aspects in my opinion when product placement is overdone or too obvious. Product placement that is blatantly obvious takes away from the film, even if for a split second the logo or label is being read by the audience. 

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