At first, the dance-act Faithless's new video seems pretty straightforward. To the sound of a thumping beat, a car drives through night-time streets. Dido breathily sings about Feelin' Good. But look again, and you'll notice that the car appears a little too frequently - not for artistic, visual reasons, but because this video is the most shameless example of product placement for some time. It was paid for in full by Fiat, which is promoting its new Punto Evo model. The video won't be shown on the usual music channels, but in its entirety in a prime-time advert break during UK Big Brother.
A win-win situation? Faithless - currently without a record deal - get a big-budget video for free, broadcast to millions rather than to the niche market of a dance-music channel. Fiat - which admitted in The Independent it was "quite surprised" the band allowed the car to be used so heavily in the video - allies itself to a cool dance sound. But do the public also gain from this? Art and commerce, it's generally understood, should steer well clear of one another. The moment an artist has to change her work because of the motivations of the people paying for it is the moment that artist sells out. So it's no surprise that Faithless's Sister Bliss has made pains to justify the band's actions.
"They want to sell cars, and we want to sell music," she says. "It doesn't mean our music has any branding on it; it's not crude like that." True, Dido isn't singing "Feelin' Good... in my Fiat." These sorts of link-ups are becoming more and more prevalent, though. It's not difficult to see why: artists are finding that the traditional ways of funding - from benevolent record labels or CD sales - are dying out. Meanwhile, corporations grapple for visibility in an increasingly disparate, brand-heavy world.
It means, though, that some of the alliances are genuinely odd. Starbucks was, for a while, producing records by Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello right alongside pouring lattes. And perhaps you might expect an automotive company to sponsor a musician's European tour - there's a lot of travelling to do, after all. But would Shakira really drive from venue to venue in the Seat Ibiza hatchback that she endorsed? And did that really inspire Shakira's fans to buy a Seat?
None of these deals is as odd as the notion of Tesco making films, but in a few months' time, an adaptation of Jackie Collins's novel LA Connections will hit not cinemas, but Tesco stores. It will appear there, exclusively, as a straight-to-DVD release, fully funded by the world's third largest retailer. One wonders what Tesco will really get out of Paris Connections (Collins' novel has been transposed to Paris Fashion Week). Apparently, there is no mention of the supermarket or strategic placement of its products anywhere in the film. The only requirement from Tesco bosses is that it's not, ahem, too steamy. Still, any trailer that ended with "Paris Connections, in supermarkets, now!" would be quite depressing.
Of course, cinema is often put to good use for product placement - the James Bond franchise is a serial offender, and actually makes something of a laughing stock of the companies involved. At least Tesco is simply providing the money and keeping its nose out of everything else. Not so Eurostar. The high-speed passenger rail service stumped up the cash for Shane Meadows' black-and-white movie Somers Town (2008), a beautiful film about two teenage boys in London who dream of a day trip to Paris. So how would they get to the French capital? You've guessed it - via a particular international train company.
Somehow, Meadows managed to make an engaging, thoughtful movie rather than an advertorial for cross-channel rail services, although the moment the film shifts into colour (just as the boys get on the train) things get slightly ham-fisted. Meadows argued that he "never once thought about Eurostar" while making the film. But the reason it's difficult to believe him is that a crucial part of the plot centres on the very company that paid for it. The boys didn't decide to go on the ferry, after all.
Of course, like Faithless's experiences with the penny-pinching music industry, film finance is incredibly hard to come by. So if a company with spare money slopping around wants to back art with cash, then the chance should be grabbed at, shouldn't it? Meadows was so well-regarded as a director after This Is England, he just about got away with Somers Town. The public let him off. But generally, the idea of art as an independent entity that somehow represents the feelings of our society - rather than our commercial system - is lost when artists take the corporate shilling. And sometimes, you wonder why they do. Fay Weldon was already a successful author and screenwriter before it was revealed she received £18,000 from Bulgari to mention the jeweller at least 12 times in her new book. Perhaps she was returning to her roots in advertising when she called it, er, The Bulgari Connection.
The troubled British pop band Keane were making tentative steps back into the public consciousness earlier this year with new single Stop for a Minute. It was actually a rather good song - but all anyone talked about was the appalling product placement for a well-known brand of lager in the video. All of which makes one of the most famous hip-hop songs of all time - Run-DMC's My Adidas - seem rather quaint.
"My Adidas and me close as can be, we make a mean team my Adidas and me" might sound like the most flagrant musical advertorial in history, but it actually isn't. Joseph "DJ Run" Simmons and Darryl "DMC" McDaniels genuinely liked Adidas's clothes and sneakers, and decided to write a song about them. Therein lies the crucial difference between Run-DMC and Faithless. Did Sister Bliss and Maxi Jazz approach Fiat because they really liked their hot hatchbacks? Of course not. The video features a car because Fiat paid them to make it.
So whether we like it or not, the culture we consume has an increasing, and insidious, commercial message. If, in five years' time, the music video as an interesting art form has been subsumed by barely disguised adverts for cars, soft drinks and mobile phones, Faithless will be hailed as trailblazers. But is that a legacy they will really be proud of?