What are the ethical implications of product placements in the context of consumer perception?

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Product placement, which is an advertising method in which advertisers insert brands into non-advertising media (without the viewers knowing that they are being exposed to an advertisement), became an extensive marketing phenomenon following the release of the movie E.T. in 1982. In this particular movie, pieces of Hershey’s Reeses were...

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Product placement, which is an advertising method in which advertisers insert brands into non-advertising media (without the viewers knowing that they are being exposed to an advertisement), became an extensive marketing phenomenon following the release of the movie E.T. in 1982. In this particular movie, pieces of Hershey’s Reeses were conspicuously exhibited, triggering a 70% surge in the product’s sales in barely a month or so after the film’s release. Since then, mass media researchers, advertisers, and philosophers, among other concerned parties, have sought to explore product placement and the ethical concerns emanating from it. Going by the above-stated definition of product placement, the practice becomes a somewhat unethical practice, primarily because it appears to be more of a manipulation than a persuasion. To add more ammunition to this argument, the viewers are not aware of the evidence and logic presented. Moreover, the characters in a film or TV program do not openly recommend the product. Instead, the product is conspicuously inserted into a specific scene, making the whole process unethical.

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Product placement refers to embedding product promotions in works of art such as films or music. There are many ethical issues that arise when a product is advertised indirectly. First, there may be cases of unfair comparison. Product placements are not governed by the same policies as those governing direct advertisements. Secondly, false information may be portrayed. The product may be overpraised or misrepresented without any consequences to the advertiser. Further, product placements have been termed as manipulation by some critics. These critics argue that advertising something within a film is a way of manipulating innocent customers who are unaware that something is being advertised. Customers are thus subliminally manipulated into purchasing a product, even if it is not worth it. On the plus side, product placements reduce the need for TV program interruptions for commercial breaks.

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The major ethical issue in this regard is the danger that product placements will not be perceived as advertisements by consumers.  Consumers in America today are well used to traditional advertisements.  They know that advertisers are trying to manipulate them to get them to buy particular products.  In a sense, they are forewarned against ads.  But this may not be the case with product placements.  The consumers may not realize that those placements are, in essence, advertisements.  Ethically, then, product placements are more problematic than traditional advertisements since they are more likely to fool consumers.

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