In Bettig and Hall’s article “Ad Creep: The Commercialization of Culture,” the authors discuss the phenomenon of “ad creep,” which is described as “the gradual expansion of advertising into nontraditional spaces such as public playgrounds, school buses, sidewalks, and beaches” (193). In essence, as advertisements become more and more recognizable and rejected by the public, marketers and advertisers must find new ways to incorporate their advertisements into everyday life. As a result, instead of having separate avenues for delivering advertisements (like a commercial in between programmed television), they use strategies like ‘product placement,’ wherein mention is made by characters of products, or that product is displayed in the foreground or background of a television show. Other examples of ad creep include the barrage of ads in billboards in certain locations people are sure to frequent (sides of buses, public parks, restaurant menus, etc). Bettig and Hall argue that ad creep is “particularly invasive yet increasingly accepted” in popular culture, as more and more cultural elements are having these commercial interests grafted onto them in an attempt to gain the audience’s attention (194).
Product placement is, as previously mentioned, the first and most prominent form of ad creep now invading popular culture. Due to the commercialization of American culture, much of our media revolves around people having what we want, or searching for what they want – much of the time, these consist of the products they want. “Hollywood has always promoted acquisitive or ‘aspirational’ lifestyleshappy endings on the silver screen often celebrated heterosexual romantic love combined with socioeconomic class rise” (Bettig and Hall 194); to that end, movies and TV tend to equate the acquisition of stuff with happiness, something that advertisers use to promote ad creep in these media. The fetishization of products, from the jewelry at Tiffany’s to the .44 Magnum, the “most powerful handgun in the world,” is part of this ad creep. This kind of practice remains today, with some films becoming more blatant about it than others: one recent example is the Vince Vaughn-Owen Wilson vehicle The Internship, which effectively acts as a commercial for Google and its many products while the company itself serves as a plot setting for its comedy.
Products have become part of film narratives, now, and people have more or less become accustomed to them. Even as people’s media literacy increases, and they are aware of the presence of product placement, this can even still be a boon to advertisers: “Product placement [has been parodied in films]but as many critics have noted, such plugs may be even more effective when viewers feel like they’re in on the joke” (Bettig and Hall 195). This increasing transparency of advertisements plays on the viewer’s sense of ironic detachment, as they become increasingly more aware of the product through the exercising of their media literacy to detect it. When someone, for instance, laughs at the scene where Wayne in Wayne’s World openly displays a Pepsi to the camera and discusses its refreshing taste, media-literate audiences are simply being exposed to the product’s existence to a greater degree, all while tricking themselves into being ‘above’ the advertisement due to their shared disgust of product placement in the film. This serves as a way of circuitously advertising to the jaded, using irony as a powerful tool for exposure.
Bettig and Hall even note that product placement has started to creep into ‘high art,’ such as theater and hardcover books, which are normally patronized by those who do not subscribe to ‘middlebrow’ entertainment. However, these people also typically have high incomes, and therefore would be perfect advertising targets. The authors note several instances where theatrical productions have included product placement, and where literature has allowed advertisements to creep into their text. This speaks to American culture’s greater acceptance of advertisements, as the authors imply, through greater integration of products into the narratives and aesthetics of the art we consume.
The other way in which ad creep has started to insinuate itself into American culture is through new media and the Internet; as this is where most people do their shopping, spend their time, be social, and more, it is fertile ground for targeted advertisements. Google Ads and other targeted marketing strategies use web browser information, search and purchase history to show people ads of things they are interested in – if you write about paying the rent, Google Ads may show you an ad for home buying. If your Facebook profile says you are a single man in his twenties, it may show you ads for video games or online dating. All of these things allow for customized, targeted ads that actually speak to the audience’s interests; websites are littered with banner ads and sidebar ads, to the point where less and less of a website’s space is real content.
All of these strategies plays into Story’s (2007) claim that advertisers are employing greater ad creep because “consumers’ viewing and reading habits are so scattershot now that many advertisers say the best way to reach time-pressed consumers is to try to catch their eye at literally every turn” (Story, 2007). Research shows that people living in cities today see nearly 5,000 ad messages a day, compared to only 2,000 thirty years previous; this can contribute to a feeling of sensory overload, wherein there is simply too much advertising space being used to make one product stand out over another. The use of controlled scents from advertisements and motion sensors creates even more targeted advertisement, turning our everyday world into a living, breathing advertisement that seemingly follows you around. These are some of the most extreme examples of Bettig and Hall’s concept of ‘ad creep,’ as advertisers follow the consumer incessantly, trying to catch their eye.
In conclusion, Bettig and Hall’s notion of ad creep is an indicator of the changing priorities and lifestyles of American culture. As we become more reliant on products and materialistic in our habits, advertisers are going to work harder to get our money, especially as non-targeted advertisements lose their effectiveness. To that end, increasingly gimmicky and integrated practices will be performed in order to get our attention – everything from including products into our media as part of the story’s world to slapping advertisements in the most unlikely of places. The Internet can also be used to customize these advertisements to suit our needs and interests. All of this results in an increasingly invasive and discomfiting way of marketing products to us that stems from the desperation of companies (as noted by Story) to insinuate themselves into our lives.
Bettig, Ronald. and Jeanne L. Hall, "Ad Creep: The Commercialization of Culture" in Big
Media, Big Money: Cultural Texts and Political Economics, Second Edition. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012. Pp. 193-225.
Story, Louise. “Anywhere the Eye Can See, It’s Likely to See an Ad.” The New York Times.