One of the mysteries of my childhood television experiences was the infrequent and puzzling appearance of Brand X items in what seemed to be such meticulously realistic programs. I remember watching celebrities quench their thirst with can after can of “SODA POP” or rip into a bag of “CHIPS”. Breakfast scenes were also oddly devoid of brand cereals and milk came entirely in white cardboard half gallons. I could accept the fictitious plots, but not the fact that these families acted so unlike regular families, at such banal everyday events, especially breakfast. Didn’t these fictional families at least eat and drink regular, brand recognizable food?

I never figured out why producers had to exclude real labels from products, but I imagine it had something to do with copyrights and money. Well, to contrast with my early television experiences, it seems like hardly a minute goes by these days on television without products being overtly mentioned during programs, or at least being easily recognizable props on numerous sets. The humorous “Snapple” bit from Seinfeld comes to mind. It makes perfect sense, why try to ignore something so mundane, but rather focus on it and exploit it for humor as well as advertising. And of course these placements have become a feature of most recent comedies and action films. There are the Bond references to Omega watches and BMWs, the Mission Impossible Apple laptop, and the list goes on.

It seems like this marketing phenomenon is growing both in scope and insidiousness with the current boom in personal electronic gadgets and latest “must haves”. Is it a coincidence that the rise of this marketing tactic is paralleling the surge in “reality” television programming and the popularity of “blogging” and digital word of mouth?

The process of product placements and indirect hawking is a more traditional form of what is know as “covert marketing”, but the current variation goes beyond the mere product placements ubiquitous in films and television programs. Online “blogs”, online shills, and paid actors are all standard features.

One tactic that has received some press is the use of paid actors to hang out at tourist locations or trendy bars and restaurants and, in what seems innocent to the bystanders, show off their cool new digital camera/phone, or order the hip new alcoholic beverage while offering strangers a curiously cool looking cigarette from a brand they heard about from friends. All these tactics are designed to hit the marketing target by getting under his or her radar. For some, this type of marketing borders on the offensive, and readily smacks of manipulation and deceit, all carried out for money. As Gary Ruskin, of the anti-commercialism group entitled “Commercial Alert”, states, “It’s the commercialization of human relationships.” Indeed, it says something about the level of saturation of advertising in our society when the label for this type of marketing is a reference to war.

Regardless of how cunning this type of advertising seems to be, it gets even more so when young adults are paid to promote movies and goods online to their peers. It seems laughable to pay some marketing professional to imitate something he or she wishes to reach, when clearly not belonging to that group. Indeed, the record executive trying to reach the young, hip-hop audience illustrates this point. However, why not pay someone already in the group to promote from the inside?

Well, critics argue that this facilitates the creep of ads into every facet of our lives, but the more dangerous concern is that it forces us one step closer to cynicism. If we cannot even go out for a stroll without having to worry about someone trying to plant subconscious desires to buy things we do not need, then we really are in trouble. This overreach needs to be a concern of the business community that employs these tactics. Covert marketing’s value has been demonstrated, but what has not been respected is the potential backlash against corporations or industries that rely on these tactics.

Up until now, little has been revealed about what products exactly are more conducive to this type of marketing, and what audience is most susceptible. As this marketing grows, so too will public awareness of its existence grow, and this success may be its own failure. In any case, those rave reviews you spot on your favorite indie website may in fact be planted, so take them with a grain of salt. Like we need another reason not to trust anything we read on the Internet.