Perfect placement

By Allen Stare

I really enjoy the sitcom “Cougartown.” It’s from the creator of “Scrubs,” which I also love, and features Courtney Cox. The combination of influences gives it a “Friends-Scrubs” kind of vibe that’s a little trippy, a touch surreal and very, very funny.

The atmosphere of the “Cul-de-Sac Crew” exists in a plane of semi-reality. That’s why, when Andy came out of a “Best Buy” store with a new digital camera in the middle of the first episode of the final season, it was a slap in the face. The scene was so obviously staged, so completely phony and unreal…and that’s saying something for a show that thrives on being surreal.

It was product placement. Best Buy most certainly plunked down some hard green for a mention in a positive light within the content of the show. Sure, product placement is nothing new, nothing unique, it’s been going on for decades…but every time I see a clunkily placed product mention I cringe.

Did you watch “Breaking Bad?” Remember when Walter White and Walt Junior raced home in those souped up Dodges? There was even a close-up on the logos as the cars screeched into the driveway. You could have pulled that thirty seconds out of the show and run it as a stand-alone ad.

But then you wouldn’t have watched. You’d have zipped right past it.

We caused this. We pushed those poor national advertisers into the arms of TV and movie producers. We aren’t watching the spots anymore. At least we aren’t watching them to the degree we did before DVRs, time-shifting, subscription streaming and commercial-free binge watching. Advertisers have to find a way to jam their logo in our collective faces. If a lead character happens to be looking over the edge of a laptop screen with a big glowing Apple logo on the front…well that’s a win-win for everybody on that end of the TV screen. Oftentimes Apple will hand over big loads of hardware to TV and movie productions without any cash outlay. They pay in product hoping for some screen time. The entire production crew ends up walking around the set with new iPads and Mac Airs. As a thank-you, they make sure a few of those distinctive logos wind up prominently displayed on Sandra Bullock’s desk as she’s sending an e-mail to Ryan Reynolds.

Advertising within the confines of “art” has been happening for a long time. When Jules Verne wrote “Around the World in Eighty Days” he had transport and shipping companies lobbying for mentions in the book. No one knows if Verne made any money from the mentions…but he should have.

Early cinema glommed onto the practice quickly. “Red Crown Gasoline” was so prominent in the 1920 movie “The Garage” that critics of the era called it shameless. “Wings” from 1927 was the first movie to ever win an Academy Award for best picture. It contained a huge product mention for Hershey’s chocolate.

It’s estimated that advertisers paid more than 10 billion dollars in 2010 for placement in movie and TV productions. That’s more than triple what it was at the turn of the century. Roughly 80% of those dollars probably went to television. TV has always been good at grabbing their share of advertiser dollars and they’ve never cared about mingling art with commerce. “Survivor” has been inserting challenge products since 2001. You think it’s a coincidence those “American Idol” judges always set their glasses down to reveal the Coke logo? Heck, even Uncle Miltie was broadcasting from “The Texaco Star Theater.”

Getting an exact number for dollars spent on ‘in-show’ TV promotion is difficult. Usually the product placement deal for certain shows is also tied to traditional advertising buys on a network. “We’ll make sure Rick Grimes walks past a Chrysler sign just before killing a gang of zombies if you sign up to run 60 paid Dodge commercials a month on AMC for the next six months.” You’ve got to admit, the “Walking Dead” is subtle about their product placement. If you’re a fan, think about this: each time they find a working car along the road, you always know exactly what brand of auto has survived the zombie apocalypse.

Some products wind up in productions without payment. The property master (“prop” person) has to find things for stars to use within a show that exist in real life. If those things are paid-for sponsorships, great, but if not, there are no specific laws or protections for manufacturers if those products get recognized within a show. Oftentimes, just to keep the peace, tape will be put over the logos or phony logos will be created. Not always. The guy wearing my Bluetooth headset in “Olympus Has Fallen” was NOT a good guy. I mean, he was an evil and ugly terrorist and he was definitely wearing my Plantronics Voyager Legend BT Headset. How did I feel about seeing an evil terrorist wearing my particular brand of Bluetooth? Actually, I thought it was kind of cool. Did Plantronics ask to have that there? Probably not. Did they file a lawsuit to have their logo removed? Nope.

Budweiser, on the other hand, was definitely NOT happy about their inadvertent exposure in the Denzel Washington movie “Flight.” Denzel plays an alcoholic airline pilot. In one scene, after he falls off the wagon, a cut reveals an enormous Budweiser logo on the side of a can in the foreground of the shot. Bud logos are everywhere as Denzel chugs several cans. Budweiser definitely did NOT want to be associated with irresponsible and damaging alcohol abuse. Anheuser-Busch/InBev has legal resources considerable enough they were able to force the digital removal of their logos in the DVD release.

As we continue to get more of our programming from alternatives to broadcast or traditional commercial networks, I’m bracing myself for more clunky “Cougartown” style product placements. I just wish all producers would approach product placement with the forthright acknowledgement of the brilliant “30 Rock.” After Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin slobbered all over the virtues of Verizon, Tina’s Liz Lemon looked right into the camera and said, “can we have our money now?”

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