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Jewish World Review
Feb. 27, 2006
/ 29 Shevat, 5766
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Is it a story or an ad?
Q: Can I promote my product by having it unobtrusively written into a story?
A: A. The practice you refer to is known as "product
placement". We can hardly doubt that people have been
emulating the consumption practices of story heroes as
long as they have been telling stories. Product
placement takes advantage of this tendency by inducing
story-tellers (including novelists and screenwriters)
to introduce commercial products into their plots.
This type of advertising has greatly increased in
recent years. In the early days of the practice it was
limited to asking merchants to donate props, which in
turn served as passive advertisements for the
products. Later the agreements became more formal, and
advertisers paid for use of their products in the
story line. The practice really took off after an
astute product placement in ET lead to skyrocketing
sales for Reese's Pieces. (Disclaimer: I didn't get
any benefits from Universal Studios or from the
Hershey Company for mentioning their products here.)
The ethical problem with product placement is similar
to the one with advertorials, the subject of an
earlier column. We
pointed out there that there's nothing wrong with
advertising, as long as people know that they are
facing a pitch by someone with an interest in sales.
But people have a right to expect editorial content of
publications to be objective, so inadequately labeled
advertorials are deceptive, and ultimately
counterproductive since they reflect badly on the
quality of the publication.
Product placement is not quite as serious. Since the
practice is so common, no one really expects the
choice of brands used in a story line to be based
solely on objective storytelling criteria. At the same
time, there is no question that artists bear more
responsibility to the audience than advertisers. This
responsibility is reflected in a more privileged
position as well. For example, commercial speech is
subject to more regulation than artistic speech, and
has more limited "freedom of speech" protection under
the US Constitution.
Thus, a movie with product placement may need to be
considered an advertisement. Indeed, a major 1980's
film with a product placement for cigarette brand was
screened with a warning against the dangers of
smoking, as required for cigarette ads. (Don't expect
my column to give added publicity to the film or the
I don't think there's any need to forbid product
placement, but I do think that two safeguards are
1. Product placement should be transparent. The front
matter of the book, or the trailer of the movie,
should state that brands X, Y and Z are included in
the story as paid promotions.
2. Artistic works with product placement have to
conform to the more limited freedom of commercial
works. If ads are forbidden to peddle junk food to
kids or cigarettes to adults, then movies should be
forbidden too. The movies have to avoid exaggerated
claims, misleading comparisons, and all the other
strictures observed by ethical advertisers.
Of course the danger exists that once these limits are
observed, audiences will start asking themselves why
they are paying ten dollars to see a two-hour long
commercial. Perhaps they will conclude that the studio
should be paying them. On the other hand, maybe they
will find the ads unobtrusive and the added budget a
welcome contribution to film quality. Either way,
introducing safeguards will ensure accountability to
In Judaism, the ideal is a reverse kind of product
placement. Not a crass materialism whereby hidden
messages degrades a story into a commercial, but
rather a noble spirituality which elevates a mere
story into a lesson for life. After all, even without
commercials a story is only a story; the inner moral
and spiritual message is what gives it a soul. Our
tradition is filled with statements explaining that
the events of the Torah are not merely stories, but
rather carry a profound and often hidden message.
Commenting on the detailed description in the Torah of
the encounter between Abraham's servant and the family
of Rebecca, the intended wife of Isaac, Rashi writes:
"The everyday speech of the servants of the Patriarchs
is even more beautiful to God than the laws of the
sons." Studying this story provides not diversion, but
guidance for life, like the holy Law itself. (1)
And the Zohar teaches us that the stories of the Torah
are like the garments of a person, and the laws like
the body. But the inner spiritual message of the text
is the very soul of the Torah. Like a subliminal
message, this soul is not evident to the casual reader
yet it has a powerful impact on his actions.
Our society loves a good story. There's nothing wrong
with a story, but we should be careful not to let
hidden messages turn stories into commercials. If we
reflect carefully on the sad state of the
entertainment industry, we can aspire to something
higher: hidden ethical and spiritual messages that
turn mere stories into uplifting and inspirational
SOURCES: (1) Rashi's commentary on Genesis 24:42. (2) Zohar, Behaalotcha III:152a.
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THE JEWISH ETHICIST, NOW IN BOOK FORM
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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© 2005, The Jewish Ethicist is produced by the JCT Center for Business Ethics