Pundits have blamed the explosion of product placement on the popularity of TiVo and other DVRs that allow users to speed through (or erase entirely) commercial ad breaks, making it necessary to embed ads into the actual program. If less people are seeing the commercials, networks need to reassure their sponsors that their products are still being viewed. But when does product placement cross a line from a subtle nudge to a knock over the head?
Reality shows have always been gluttons for product placement, whether it be competitors' rewards in the form of cars or luxury vacation excursions or, in the case of CBS reality series Survivor, name brand food--like Doritos or Mountain Dew, etc.--that the castaways can eat during or after a reward challenge. (Imagine if the Lost castaways had that option instead of being forced to eat all those Dharma Initiative generic foodstuffs; of course if Dharma--or Apollo chocolate bars--end up being actual companies in the real world, I'll eat my hat.) Typically, such placements have helped defray production costs.
NBC's The Apprentice seems to be one of the worst perpetrators of excessive product placement: nearly every task to date has relied on some national brand sponsorship of an existing or soon-to-be released product, whether it be toothpaste, automobiles, cruise lines, or video games.
And I couldn't help but cringe when The Amazing Race featured that damn Travelocity gnome, not just in their mat-side rewards, but in actual challenges. This season featured the second time that the gnome has popped up along the Race: contestants had to find a number of Travelocity gnomes buried in a field and then carry the gnome to the pit stop. (It was also the lamest challenge of the season thus far.) At other times, the show has featured teams driving around in Mercedes or GMC Yukons, using Duracell batteries in flashlights, logging on to AOL to receive clues, or visiting a BP gas station for no reason whatsoever except to retrieve a clue. (In fact, according to an article on Backstage.com, both The Amazing Race and The Amazing Race: Family Edition appeared on a list of the ten television programs with the most product placement for 2005. The Amazing Race also made the list in 2004.)
For a time, I had thought that television dramas and comedies would be somewhat immune to this trend. In the past, networks usually had programs "greek" the brand names--i.e., change Nokia cell phones to Nokio--or use generic placeholders to refer to products, like SUV instead of a specific car make. However, that's changed considerably as of late. Again, referring to the article on Backstage.com:
"The number of product placements on network primetime television jumped about 30% in 2005 to 106,808, up from 82,014 the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research's product placement tracking service Place Views.
The total duration of product placements on network primetime rose 22%, from 157 hours in 2004 to about 191 hours last year. Visual onscreen placements increased 33.5%, from 64,920 to 86,668, while brand mentions rose 24%, from 19,876 to 24,723."
I find those figures absolutely frightening.
Yes, it's always been possible for characters to wear specific brands of clothes or drink a specific soda or even blatantly display a product logo in a scene (look at what Seth's poster on The OC did for sales of Death Cab for Cutie's albums), but I figured that the egregious usage of placement wouldn't carry over from reality shows into scripted series.
I was wrong. It's even carried over from shots of individual products to full-on discussions about them in the characters' dialogue.
It's not that there isn't a dramatic use to this sort of product placement; in fact it can at times help ground a show and make it seem more "realistic" by dint of the characters using and discussing the very same items we the viewers use and discuss in real life. Whether it's Margene on Big Love bemoaning the fact that they need to buy Windex (the same episode later also featured a shot of the bottle of the cleaner smack on Margene's table), or The Office's Jim and Pam discussing fellow NBC program The Apprentice, there's a verisimilitude to these scenes that can't be obtained by making up product names or greeking them.
However, setting nearly an entire episode of The Office in a Chili's restaurant and talking about the various dishes they offer ("I wanted one of those skillets of cheese," says Michael; and in a later episode: "May we have an Awesome Blossom, please, extra awesome.") was more than a little excessive to say the least (as was a shot of a Chili's employee explaining their corporate policy not to overserve drinks to customers). Another glaring example was the iPod in the Christmas episode, which was featured as the gift that everyone at Dunder-Mifflin wanted to steal (The Office is available for download through iTunes). At other times, the series has referenced Sbarros, Red Lobster, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Mac computers, Hooters, Mailboxes Etc., Country Crock Spread, and Starbucks. Which, when you add them all up, is a rather halting trend for the show.
According to an article in Ad Age, the Chili's deal was set up before "The Dundies" episode of The Office (the first such showcasing Chili's) was even written, during the TV upfronts that May:
"For The Office, the chain built out a restaurant with signage and found some actors who also were Chili's servers that helped make the integration authentic.
Deals for the integrations were structured as value-added media buys during the TV upfronts last May.
"We went into the upfront strategy to be more relevant in the creative," [Chili's vice president of marketing Ken] Thewes said. "We're in a cluttered market place. We want the brand to be integrated and not be a static representation. When we can have a relevant message in the shows, it gives you better retention and a better brand message."
Chili's prioritized programs on the networks' slates, read and approved shooting scripts and had staff on set during filming of each production. Mr. Thewes admitted that beyond making sure the integration is a natural fit, some of the placement is beyond his control.
So why be concerned with this now when product placement has been exponentially growing the past few years? The answer is simple. A friend of mine pointed me to last week's episode of Alias, which is no stranger to sponsorship and product placement deals. In this episode ("30 Seconds"), Sydney's sister Nadia (Mia Maestro) is revived from a year-long coma after being turned into a zombie by a Rambaldi device (trust me, don't ask). Upon her recovery, she joins Syd's hardcore spy dad Jack (Victor Garber) in his car. As Jack and Nadia race to their location in Jack's new Ford Hybrid, Nadia (who's been in a coma--A COMA--for a year) casually turns to Jack and says, "So you finally got the Ford Hybrid?" as she admires the car's luxe interior. "Electric," Jack responds and continues to explain that the quiet running noise helps on top secret missions. And then as they exit the car, the camera swoops in for a tight zoom on the Ford logo.
Did they really need a former coma patient, recently recovered, to remark on something as inane and pointless as Jack's choice of vehicle? How did this placement advance the story or the characters? Or enhance the verisimilitude of the scene?
Arrested Development poked fun of this very issue in one memorable second season episode. Wannabe actor Tobias (David Cross) meets former acting coach Carl Weathers at a Burger King, where Carl explains that he's trying to get the company to underwrite a new TV project he's working on, in exchange for setting a scene at the restaurant. As he speaks, the camera pans over to several signs for Burger King, which seem to fill the restaurant. Tobias replies that that's fine, "as long as you don't draw attention to it." (Wink, wink) Carl helpfully points out that all drink refills are free at Burger King. "It's a wonderful restaurant," Tobias says cheerfully. Ron Howard, the show's narrator, adds, "It sure is."
Ultimately, I know that product placement in some form is a necessary evil; television, after all, operates on an advertising-based system. I don't mind product placement as much when it is subtly and inoffensively embedded into a scene--as in Big Love or some of The Office's examples--rather than when it becomes just blatant shilling. Use the message as a way of saying something about the scene or characters or about life in general. Otherwise, the placement is just that--a placement--a placeholder of empty space that in the age of 20-minute sitcoms and 40-minute dramas could better be used to service the story. Networks need to be aware that they must serve that master first or the show itself will suffer and then there won't be anyone watching at all.
As for those TiVo units that Madison Avenue was decrying just the other day as the death of advertising and commercial-supported television as we know it? Well, TiVo announced yesterday that they would offer subscribers the ability to download specifically selected long-form ads directly to their DVR units, which should make sponsors gleefully happy. So does that mean we can cut back on the product placement overkill then? Guys? Anyone?
What's On Tonight
8 pm: NCIS (CBS); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America (ABC; 8-10 pm); American Idol (FOX); America's Next Top Model (UPN)
9 pm: The Unit (CBS); Scrubs/Scrubs (NBC); Pepper Dennis (WB); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)
10 pm: The Unit (CBS); Law & Order: SVU (NBC); Boston Legal (ABC)
What I'll Be Watching
8 pm: Gilmore Girls.
I'm getting a case of the sniffles just thinking about tonight's episode of Gilmore Girls, which marks the departure of creator/showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband, writer/producer Daniel Palladino. In the aptly-named season finale ("Partings"), written by Amy and Daniel, the wee town of Stars Hollow becomes overrun by singers including Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, and the official town troubadour, Grant Lee Phillips, while Richard and Emily attempt to find a match for Christopher. Hmmm, do I smell a potentially happy ending for Lorelai and Chris, rather than Lorelai and Luke?
9 pm: Veronica Mars.
Meanwhile, over on what I hope is the season, rather than series, finale of Veronica Mars ("Not Pictured"), erstwhile teen sleuth Veronica finally unmasks the perpetrator of the bus crash, lands herself in more than a little trouble with her murderer/statutory rapist Aaron Echolls, and graduates from Neptune High. Hurst College and the CW, here we come! (Fingers crossed, anyway.)