Why has product placement become an attractive alternative to the standard commercial messages which interrupted televised narrations but did not enter the narrations themselves? It has been argued that economic factors and competition from new media are forcing advertisers to reevaluate how to get their messages across. In fact this is just the tail wagging the dog. It has always been inevitable that the "content" what we call "ads" would move from the confines of the 15 or 30 seconds spaces between the old content presented by our traditional media to become involved in all forms of entertainment, from movies to television, to the theater, to news reports, to our literature.
As the mythic avatars of our culture, advertising icons want to insinuate themselves into every aspect of our lives, and we subconsciously want them to do so. As Nicholas Johnson noted, television programs are not the "products" of American television. We, the viewers, are the product and we are sold to advertisers at a cost per thousand by the television and cable networks. Advertisers spend a great deal of money testing and researching which symbols or narratives will strike what Tony Schwartz calls a "responsive chord" with the public. Through their psychological research, advertisers have become very sophisticated in their understanding of what motivates our purchasing behavior.
Think about how the average person in Homeric Greece related to the Iliad or the Odyssey. These performance/poems weren't just the "literature" of Greek culture, separate from their general experience. Eric Havelock, Marshall McLuhan and others have pointed out that the Iliad and Odyssey constituted cultural "how-to manuals" or "mythic encyclopedias," preserving for a culture without writing the proper ways to conduct ceremonies, the proper relationship of Greeks toward their gods and the proper things to believe about just about everything in their world.
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noted that such mythic encyclopedias reconcile or deny the inevitable contradictions within a culture's system of beliefs. My research on television advertising suggests that many television ads deal with nature/culture issues, wrestling with the same types of concerns that Lévi-Strauss discerned in the mythology of South American cultures. Ads are part of a system that explains the contradictions of our culture, or denies that those contradictions exist. The iconic imagery presented by ads is not "art", out there to be appreciated only by an educated few. They are part of all our daily lives and as such they constitute our culture's mythic encyclopedia. By doing so, they promote well-being and peace of mind of members of the culture.
Commercials portray people suffering from the assaults of dirt and disease, using the sponsor's product to mediate and restore order. Foods of all types, raw and cooked, fresh and "aged' or "cultured" are touted, not just as basic nutrition, but as enablers for social occasions. Personal care products promise to help overcome individual shortcomings and enhance sexual attractiveness.
To help them better grasp this concept, I like to ask students in my classes the following question: Why do women in our culture wear makeup? The acceptance of this cultural norm is so deep that this question is seldom asked. We see all sorts of ads in all our media showing women wearing the public mask that the use of makeup represents. A woman's need to wear makeup is constantly promoted and reinforced by all of our media, but seldom are the particulars of purchasing, applying and wearing makeup examined in such minute detail as they are in our advertisements. Why do women need to do this? Why, before going out in public do they engage in rituals associated with eyes, skin and mouth? Perhaps, it is argued, that applying makeup minimizes individual variances from the beauty norm and thereby enhances one’s sexual attractiveness. Then why don't men need to wear makeup? What allows them to forgo the rituals? Certainly in other times and other cultures the use of makeup by men was perfectly acceptable.
I would argue that there is a structural opposition within our culture that, in opposing men and women, dictates that one needs makeup while the other doesn't. In her opus, Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia explores at length some of the root causes of this opposition. Paglia discusses in great detail how the great works of art of our culture have reflected these oppositions and in other writings she traces how modern advertising pays homage to these artistic precedents. I would add that one of the ways the characteristics of this structure is disseminated and maintained is through the structure of the entire body of advertising in our media. Not just the images, but the narratives of advertising perpetuate this male/female opposition.
We still can't see that modern advertising, in all its manifestations, performs the same functions in our culture that the Iliad and the Odyssey performed in ancient Greece, or that tales about frogs and honey bees and jaguars perform for native South Americans. To me, this is a prime example of McLuhan's assertion that we are numb to our technology's impact.