How Popular Television Shows Subtly Encourage Bad Spending Habits

Like it or not, we’re all influenced by the things we see and do and hear. Sometimes, we’re conscious of and aware of those influences, like when we’re talking to a friend and really listening to their advice. Often, we’re not conscious of or aware of those influences at all, like when we’re barely paying attention to the radio and it blares out a few advertisements.

Likewise, some of the things we see and do and hear are obvious attempts at convincing us to buy stuff. Blatant magazine ads, television commercials, internet ads, and radio commercials are clear attempts to get us to be aware of a particular product or a particular retailer. That’s the point of advertisements, after all. They’re designed to make us aware of – and to make us desire – certain products.

However, marketing doesn’t stop there. It often seeps directly into the programming itself, hoping to be an “influence” that we don’t notice as much.

It’s easiest to see this tactic at work on television, which combines both audio and video and offers a nearly infinite variety of programming. Television marketing is incredibly sophisticated; it’s loaded with things that sit right on the edge of our awareness and subtly increase our interest and desire for a wide variety of products.

Here are five tactics that you might see on your favorite television programs. Keep an eye out for them – you’ll be surprised how often they show up. And, as they used to say on one of my favorite cartoons as a child, knowing is half the battle.

Product Placement

In the above clip, you’ll see a ton of examples from popular television programs where products are blatantly placed into the programming itself. The camera will focus in on a particular product for several seconds and, sometimes, the characters will specifically mention the product. On occasion, it’s played off as a joke (like the clip at the very end of the video), but at other times it’s taken completely in stride.

This, honestly, is little more than a commercial embedded in your show. The characters use almost all of the same strategies that normal commercials use to convince you that the product is desirable – it’s sexy, it’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s “macho,” it encourages uninhibited behavior. The only difference is that the characters themselves become the product sellers.

Do things like this directly encourage sales? Maybe, maybe not, but their main purpose is to increase brand awareness. If placements like these increase your familiarity with a cell phone model or a particular brand of car, you’re more likely to choose that cell phone or car when you have a purchasing decision because that brand is familiar to you, thanks to that product placement.

Inexplicable Name Brand Usage

This is something of a variation on the normal type of product placement. I happened to notice it while watching the Netflix series Luke Cage, which depicts a former convict who is living a very down-on-his-luck lifestyle. During one scene that really stood out at me, he was shown cleaning up his very run-down apartment during a period where he had almost no income. Inexplicably, he was using a bunch of name brand cleaning supplies to do it. (I’d love to find a video clip of this that I could share, but after much searching, I came up empty handed.)

Now, stop and think about this for a second. This guy barely has enough money to feed himself and keep a roof over his head and he’s going to the store and spending a bunch of extra money to buy name brand supplies instead of the very similar store brand cleaning supplies? If this were a real situation, this guy would be using store brands and dollar store cleaning supplies, not name brand stuff.

There’s nothing inherently out of place about using a name brand cleaning agent, but showing people in financially challenging situations using them as though that’s a normal choice sends a really bad signal. There’s almost no reason for anyone to use name brand cleaning supplies over the store brand versions, especially if they’re in a financially challenging situation like Luke Cage was in that scene. It creates a sense that this is a normal expense even when times are tight. It isn’t.

Unrealistic Lifestyle Based on Career Choice

The above clip comes from the television show Friends, which shows off the giant New York City apartments that the characters live in. As you can see, the apartments are spacious with open floor plans and gorgeous furnishings.

Here’s the problem. According to best estimates, the rent on the somewhat larger apartment would come in around $5,000 a month. $5,000. At best, you would see three characters actively living in that apartment together; often, it was two characters together. This apartment was theoretically in Greenwich Village.

Now, within the show, they mentioned a time or two that this was a “rent controlled” apartment and it was rented out for $200 a month, which makes it realistic within that reality. Remember, the characters had jobs such as being a librarian, a barista, a mostly-out-of-work actor, and so on.

The problem is that it gives people the impression that two or three of them could go to New York and rent a big apartment together in the middle of the city for a reasonable price. I’ve known many people who have just believed that they could easily pick up and move to New York or San Francisco and afford a nice apartment there with a similar job to what they have now. While reality is likely to quickly change that, this type of unrealistic lifestyle choice that’s commonly depicted on television constantly convinces people to rent or buy homes and apartments they can’t afford, cars they can’t afford, and so on.

1% Lifestyles

On the flip side of that comes programs like Real Housewives of Orange County that blatantly depict the lives of ostentatiously wealthy people.

This type of show takes a different approach than the ones above. Rather than showing a realistic lifestyle that people can relate to, it instead shows an over-the-top lifestyle that few can afford. It’s intended to look amazing and glamorous and chock full of things that are simply outside of the spending limits of most of the viewing audience.

So, what does that have to do with convincing people to buy?

Many such shows are vehicles for getting people familiar with high-end brands. These shows tend to be laden with product placement, but here many of the products are high-end products. They’re smaller items that people could buy if they stretched their budget and, in doing so, can link their lives to the type of “millionaire” lifestyle shown on the show. Doing so, of course, is financially disastrous for most people, but that doesn’t prevent it from happening.

It’s also a vehicle for some of the stars to create a “personal brand,” from which they can sell products and do various kinds of endorsements and product placements. This strategy is spelled out really clearly in this profile of Kim Kardashian, where she discusses her “life as a brand” and lists some of the multitude of products that she endorses and promotes using her reality show fame and extensive social media following built from that television show. She may be the most successful at doing this, but she’s far from the only person doing it.

“News” Programming

The final category that I want to mention is “news” programming, by which I mean segments in the middle of news programs that are seemingly only meant to tell you about and sell you on a product of some kind. Apple products are a common beneficiary of this type of “news.” For example:

This is basically a 90 second advertisement for the iPhone 7 that’s aired as “news” content on CNN. It’s not “news.” It’s an advertisement.

This happens constantly, with a wide variety of products. They do the same thing with many Samsung products and many car brands, too.

Just because it says that it’s news programming doesn’t mean that it’s not an ad for a product, whether or not the company involved paid for that ad or not.

What Can You Do?

So, what can you do? If so much of television programming is geared toward selling you products and raising your recognition of different store brands, how can you avoid those things?

The first thing you can do is simply cut down on your television viewing. Do other things. Go on a walk. Read a book. Make an interesting meal for supper. If you’re tired, go to bed instead of watching television in a daze. Just turn it off.

The next thing you can do is be selective in what you watch. If you happen to notice these tactics in the programs you’re watching, consider watching other things. I’ve found that lower budget independent movies and documentaries are largely devoid of these tactics.

Finally, just be aware of these things and constantly question them. If you’re watching a news story, ask yourself if this is actually news or just an ad for the product. If you see the camera focusing in on a product when you’re watching a drama, be conscious of what they’re doing there.

In the end, the best thing you can do is be more aware of how you think and what’s influencing your thinking, and watching television with a critical eye is very worthwhile in that regard. The same holds true for magazines, newspapers, websites, and pretty much every other form of media.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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