Product Placement in Historical Context

by on July 30, 2008 · 23 comments

Texaco Star Theater Last month I posted a tongue-and-cheek piece thanking policymakers for taking steps to save us from loud TV ads and product placements. The whole thing just strikes me as the height of absurdity; it’s a stupid way for regulators to spend their time and it’s a complete waste of taxpayer dollars. Backers of such regulations assume that we in the public are little more than ignorant sheep whose minds will be subliminally programmed to want to drink certain colas or drive certain cars just because they saw them in a TV show. Absurd.

The other thing that kills me about this debate is how some people seem to imagine that product placement has somehow come out of nowhere recently and taken over broadcast TV and radio to an unprecedented extent. That’s either revisionist history or ignorance of it. The fact is, broadcasting has been filled with product placement for years. Media guru Jack Myers points this out in a good piece on the issue this week:

Those old enough to recall the early days of television news recall that Camel cigarettes and Timex sponsored the NBC News with John Cameron Swayze. On-set signage was prominent. Local radio personalities have always used their relationships with consumers to advance their sponsors’ interests.

But it goes way beyond that. For God’s sake, has everyone forgotten about the “Texaco Star Theater“? It was the top-rated show of the 1950s, pulling in a stunning 61.6 rating in 1950-51 alone. How did the show begin? Here’s how the Wikipedia entry describes it:

On television, continuing a practice long established in radio, Texaco included its brand name in the show title. When the television version launched, Texaco also made sure its employees were featured prominently throughout the hour, usually appearing as smiling “guardian angels” performing good deeds of one or another kind, and a quartet of Texaco singers opened each week’s show with the following theme song:

“Oh, we’re the men of Texaco
We work from Maine to Mexico
There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours!

Our show is very powerful
We’ll wow you with an hour full
Of howls from a shower full of stars.

We’re the merry Texaco men
Tonight we may be showmen
Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars!

We wipe your pipe
We pump your gas
We jack your back
We scrub your glass

So join the ranks of those who know
And fill your tanks with Texaco

Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief
You’ll find that Texaco’s the finest friend your car has ever had

…And now, ladies and gentlemen… America’s number one television star… MILTON BERLE!…”

Jeez, how in the world did America ever survive this shameless product placement / corporate sponsorship?!? Why didn’t the FCC put an end to that before our fragile little minds were corrupted beyond repair and we all marched down to Texaco stations to guzzle up gas! [Moreover, I'm surprised the agency didn't fine the show for what were clearly subliminal sexual innuendos like: "We wipe your pipe / We pump your gas / We jack your back / We scrub your glass." !!!]

Anyway, Jack Myers also makes two other important points in his essay. First, there are First Amendment issues in play here. Many of the “media watchdog groups [who complain about such ads]…. would love nothing more than to quash the First Amendment for their own political agenda,” he notes. Second, there are economic issues in play as well:

many journalists recognize and appreciate the fact that advertisers help pay their salaries and softness in the newspaper ad market is causing massive layoffs of journalists. Unless the TV industry identifies innovative new business models, local TV reporters will suffer the same fate. Unless the TV industry is permitted to stretch some boundaries in this new media environment, local TV news will quickly follow newspapers into the economic doldrums.

Therefore, he concludes, “Fundamentally, if our government wants to ensure the media industry’s economic vitality and secure first amendment freedom of the press rights, it should keep its nose and political affairs out of the ad business.” Amen to that.

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