By Owen Gleiberman
Updated April 08, 2010 at 03:19 PM EDT

Imagine that you’re watching the low-calorie vanilla-fudge romantic comedy of the month. Its heroine is a highly successful but lonely (oh, so lonely!) big-city newspaper reporter, played by Jennifer/Sandra/Katherine/ Amy/Kate. She lives in a spangly gentrified section of Baltimore, and she works for a nationally famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper that has offices just across the river. You know the one: the Washington…Gazette. For reasons that I’ve never bothered to investigate, real newspapers — like, you know, the Washington Post — don’t tend to get played by themselves in movies that deal with media culture. They require fictionalized stand-ins. Yet just imagine, in that same Jennifer/Sandra/Amy comedy, if every last recognizable brand name — every soft drink, automobile, sports team, fashion designer, laptop maker, and high-end coffee chain — was also represented by a fictionalized stand-in. Then you’d be watching that rare if not impossible thing, a movie without product placement. And just think how cardboard Bizarro world, how sci-fi, how fake that would be.

Somewhere, though, I can hear a chorus of what used to be called granola types singing, “What a beautiful thing it would be too!” Product placement, for anyone who’s discussing movies and television, is supposed to be the enemy, the devil in (label-dropped) Prada — a textbook corporate antidote to creative thinking. If you’re a good “progressive” movie critic, then you’re supposed to jeer at it, scoff at it, and call it what it is: a literal sell-out. One of the preeminent clichés in film criticism is that high-handed (but really bored) part of certain reviews in which a routine action thriller or comedy will get kicked in the shins for including a scene in which the product placement is so obvious that the scene transparently exists for no other reason. Critics love to point out those scenes, as if they were detectives with magnifying glasses, but in truth their analysis is often more than a little knee-jerk. It’s amazing how often bad product placement is in the eye of the beholder.

If jeering is really what’s called for, than the jeering should be getting louder right about now. This past Monday, the New York Times ran a fascinating Page One story that profiled the next generation of product-placement guru — in this case, a lawyer named Jordan Yospe whose job it is to wedge products into scenes not by striking deals with producers, but by working, hands on, with writers and directors. This sounds like the evolution of an old virus into something even more…virulent. The obvious response should be: What’s next, letting the advertisers write the scripts? And to be honest, I share that sense of trepidation. How could you not? There’s no denying that our movies and television shows have, at times, become a kind of dramatized showroom mall, deluged with products so carefully placed that they’re designed to work on you almost unconsciously (like all the best advertising). I can mock the situation, and despair of it, as well as anyone.

Yet there’s a way that, quite honestly, it’s not so simple. One of the fundamental reasons that product placement evolved the way it did is that it’s an absolutely necessary evil. Movies, or a great many of them, strive to take place in a world of minutely recognizable detail, and over the past 25 years, Hollywood has been holding a mirror up to a world in which, for good or ill, we define ourselves with ever-increasing frenzy by the brands we embrace. We are what we eat/drive/wear/Web-surf/get drunk on. Are movies supposed to ignore all that? To the extent that they have bred it, that’s a vicious cycle in which I wouldn’t want to have to say which came first, the chicken or the company that tried to place it as a product.

There’s also a factor that people are only just beginning to talk about, in part because Up in the Air really put it on the map, and that is this: What about genuinely creative product placement? As the New York Times reported, Jason Reitman’s film was financed, in part, through deals struck with the Hilton Hotels chain and American Airlines — which sounds, on the face of it, like a very shrewd and clever way to get a high-flying, hard-to-classify movie about the contemporary corporate world off the ground. In effect, Jason Reitman built his movie around product placement (check out George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham, above, in his Hilton insignia bathrobe), which might strike some as a rarefied act of cynicism.

But another way to look at it is that Reitman built Up in the Air around product placement because the whole movie is an inquiry into the spiritual yet illusory enticement of products. Up in the Air is about how it feels to know that you’ll always have the executive suite at the Hilton to count on. (Message: It doesn’t feel nearly as good as it’s supposed to.) The movie turns product placement on its head by using it to create a cocoon for its hero that’s really a trap.

And I haven’t even mentioned Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle! Talk about a product placement that gives an entire movie its tasty, midnight-munchies soul!

So what do you think about product placement: Has it gotten out of hand? Is it a necessary evil, or a creative tool as well? And what’s your pick, if any, for the all-time crassest product placement — and also for the all-time classiest and most artful one?