The entertainment industry has always tried to marry business and pleasure. In the early days of television, Fred Flintstone used to hawk Winston cigarettes during commercial breaks in “The Flintstones.” (No, really.) Corporations have long conspired to slip their products into popular entertainment—from the car James Bond is driving to the sunglasses Tom Cruise is sporting. Often, these “product placement” deals involve large sums of money, which helps offset the spiraling cost of movie and television production. (Which explains how Budweiser, Corvette, Jack Daniels and Nokia all found their way into last summer’s futuristic Star Trek.)
Lately, television has gone bonkers for this type of “embedded product placement.” Rather than wait for a commercial break—which many TiVo-equipped users will simply fast-forward through—advertisers are finding sneaky ways of slipping their products directly into prime-time shows. For years now, we’ve seen those towering jugs of Coca-Cola perched prominently in front of the “American Idol” judges. That’s tame compared to what we’re seeing elsewhere.
Take, for example, last week’s episode of NBC’s spy-fi comedy “Chuck.” A small portion of the plot centered around the Subway fast food chain. Admittedly, this did grow out of something of an in-joke, but it’s a strange set of circumstances, nonetheless. In April of last year, the ratings-challenged show featured a Subway product placement. Fans latched onto the sandwich shop’s $5 footlong as their hero’s meal of choice. In order to show their support for the struggling show and encourage NBC to keep it on the air, they descended en masse on Subway stores. The “support the sponsors” movement worked. “Chuck” was renewed for another season, and Subway signed a major integrated sponsorship deal. (Hence, last week’s Subway-centric scenes.)
And “Chuck” is hardly alone. Why, even hardened culinary rebel Anthony Bourdain is obliged to slap down a bright blue Chase Sapphire credit card once per “No Reservations” episode. (Aaaand hold for a close up. Three, two, one. Back to the show.)
Of all the shows on the air right now, I’d have to guess Lifetime’s “Project Runway” is the most blatant when it comes to embedded product placement. Almost every frame of the show is awash in sponsorship deals. The contestants work out of the Parsons New School for Design in New York. They shop for fabric at Mood. They design their clothes on HP TouchSmart tm2 notepads. They call their relatives on T-Mobile Sidekick phones. They outfit their models off the Bluefly.com accessory wall. They use Garnier hair products and L’Oréal makeup. And occasionally, they’re forced to make clothes out of Hershey’s brand candies or Saturn car parts. And these embedded product plugs aren’t content to sit quietly in the background. Garnier representatives are on hand each week to tout their latest anti-frizz hair gel. Even recent guest judge Vivienne Tam got sucked into extolling the virtues of the new HP TouchSmart full-screen PCs (with Intel Core Processors).
Sometimes, these days, it’s a relief to get to the commercials—just so you get a break from the commercials.