By Lisa Sirkin Vielee
Product placement is everywhere. American Idol judges drink Coke®. E.T. followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Phil got an iPad for his birthday on Modern Family. And let’s not forget Wilson, the Wilson brand volleyball, who was his own character in the film, “Cast Away.”
There is another kind of placement activity that can shape consumer opinion. This kind of placement is to ideas and issues what product placement is to retail. When characters on TV shows and in movies deal with real-life issues or turn to real-life service providers for fictitious help, they often are presenting one side of the debate.
Take last week’s episode of NBC’s Parenthood (Tuesdays, 10 p.m. EST). In less than 60 minutes, the show took a position – whether purposefully or not – on both abortion and life with Asperger Syndrome.
(photo from www.nbc.com/parenthood/)
When the character Drew found out his girlfriend Amy was pregnant, he went with her to a Planned Parenthood clinic. All the options were presented to the teenage couple, carrying the baby to term, adoption. Interestingly, the word “abortion” was never mentioned in the clinic scene. However, as a parent, I was struck that the teenagers were not encouraged on screen to talk to their parents. Despite Drew’s misgivings, his girlfriend decides to terminate her pregnancy. While the show did not show the procedure, it did show the couple in a full waiting room, giving the perception that everyone was there for the same procedure.
Given the intense focus on Planned Parenthood in particular in the national debate about family planning, this storyline reinforced the perception that Planned Parenthood is primarily an abortion provider. While Drew’s experience does happen, Planned Parenthood reports that abortions account for only 3% of all their services. “Parenthood” (the show) has over 5 million viewers per episode. Did this storyline reinforced negative stereotypes for the organization for those viewers? I vote yes.
The show took a lighter hand with the character Max and his latest challenge with Asperger Syndrome. Viewers have watched Max and his parents grow up with the disease. Last week’s episode used a lot of humor to convey Max’s newest struggle – with puberty. His mom blushed when Max asked his grandfather if he ever ejaculated. They celebrated when Max “got” that he had to take a shower – after Max announced that he washed “his pits, his butt and his balls, just like Dad told me to.” Despite the possible shock factor, the focus was on Max, as a teenager, not on his disease.
In my opinion, this is a perception win for those who campaign for greater understanding (and funding) to help those all across the autism spectrum. While the verdict is out on whether Planned Parenthood was consulted before the show aired, Parenthood’s producer Jason Katims has a son with Aspergers and encouraged the plotline early on. “My hope would be that it normalizes it. So there’s no stigma to it, no mystery to it,” Katims told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2010.
Regardless of intent, TV show and movies really can shape our perception of issues and events. And that has as much if not greater impact than what soda the character is drinking or what shoes they are wearing.
When you talk about a show at the water cooler, how often do you talk about the ways a show dealt with a certain issue? Do shows make you think more or influence your opinions?