November 15, 2006
Chili's Everywhere: The Restaurant's Aggressive Integration Campaign on Veronica Mars and The OC

For those who watch a lot of teen dramas and/or teen detective shows, you may have noticed a hot new character breaking onto the scene in the past couple of weeks, apparently branching across networks. I'm talking about Chili's, the bar and grill well-known for its ribs jingle, among other things.

In the past few weeks, regular viewers of Veronica Mars has seen Chili's figure prominently into scenes shot in the food court of Veronica's college. In last night's episode, she even approached one of her professors who was purchasing food at Chili's and offered her a rib, which Veronica didn't want to take because she didn't want to get her hands dirty, a scene that had resonance with the story itself since Veronica felt that the teacher's offer to recommend her for an internship was a payoff to keep her quiet about her catching him having an affair with the dean's wife.

I got an e-mail from one of my colleagues here at the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, Neal Grigsby, who said that when he ate at a Chili's not long ago, there was an all-out CW cross-promotion, with ads for The CW on Chili's menus and coasters that asked various trivia questions about shows on the new network's lineup. Neal's summary: "Guess they're going for Total Chili's Awareness in the teen set."

It does seem to be a concerted effort by the restaurant to launch aggressively in a new space, particularly targeting teens through television shows. After doing a little bit more reading, I found out about a major deal between the network and Chili's that was announced back in September, in preparation for this fall's all-out product placement and promotion bonanza.

According to this announcement from BrandWeek on Sept. 15 from John Consoli, the major focus of the deal was through the CW Lab section of the network's Web site. "Under the terms of the deal, The CW will get to co-brand itself on all of Chili's in-store assets, including coasters, bag stuffers, table tents, in-store signage and gift cards," and workers will wear T-shirts that have the CW logo on them in addition to Chili's logo.

Then, with the CW Lab for user-generated content, users can submit photos that may air on the network, with some photos running in October in Chili's commercial spots. "Other Chili's commercials will drive The CW viewers to The CW Web site and promote a Chili's-sponsored sweepstakes." Over at Gen Digital, they point out that Chili's is the most popular casual dining restaurant for college students. And Gary Levin with USA Today had a really informative article at the time about the use of deeply integrated product placements in shows for the fall season, including an Applebee's restaurant being a major focus in Friday Night Lights, where one of the characters work and football players hang out.

Levin writes, "It's all part of a rapidly growing trend called product integration that marks a sea change in the TiVo era. For years, movies and some TV shows have featured real products instead of generic "cola" bottles. Such placements were often paid for by sponsors but lingered in the background." Back in May, I wrote about the differences between product placement and product integration. The distinction, of course, is this organic product placement versus explicit mention and interweaving of product into every facet of a show. I argued that reality television in particular is adept at product integration because it doesn't have a level of realism it is trying to uphold. Writers were rejecting product integration because they felt they should be compensated for having to do this type of extra work that brought in revenues for the shows. I concluded:

However, in fictional dramatic or comedy series, product integration can easily destroy the viewer's suspension of disbelief in a way that detracts from viewer involvement and the perceived aristry of a show.

Yet, episodes of Seinfeld and Sex and the City prove that episodes can have a particular brand name or product involved deeply in an episode without detracting from the power of the show, if it is not something imposed on the writers but instead something the creative team is a part of from the conception.

So, I don't see the WGA's call for inclusion as a threat but rather a great benefit to the future of effective product placement. When creative teams are saying that they see the economic reality of product placement but only object to it being done poorly, it seems they've found a mantra that the entire industry should get behind.

Indeed, the distinction is in how to do product placement or product integration correctly, in a way that feels organic rather than forced. Product integration is a much trickier type of writing than simply having someone holding a Coca-Cola instead of a generic "soda" can. But we live in a branded world, and I have no problem with people carrying around products or going to eat in restaurants that the rest of us do. It makes the world of these shows seem a little more plausible since brands are prevalent throughout our lives as well. Where it becomes obnoxious is when it leaves the realms of realism and becomes the blatant pushing of a product.

And, while anti-commercial and anti-branding groups will surely rally against these developments, a lot of fans don't have a problem with this development as long as it enhances rather than destroys the realism of their shows. Last December, I wrote about a discussion taking place on a soap opera message board for As the World Turns fans:

Everyone who posted on the thread were in agreement that product placement would be more effective, more natural, and possibly the only way for soap operas to survive, longterm. The majority of the argument singled not on if but on how product placement should be done...As several of the posters pointed out, product placement in soaps, where most of the scenes take place in people's homes or in public spaces, would be easy to incorporate into the show. The local coffee place could become a Starbucks or some similar chain. And kitchens could be filled with actual food products.

And, while they don't want to stretch the product to branding overkill and thus cause a fan backlash, it isn't inconceivable that a food court at a college would contain branded least that's my college experience. All the shows that have left chains out of it would be kind of like Massachusetts without Dunkin' Donuts.

However, Chili's marketing teen drama viewers doesn't end with The CW deal. For anyone who watched last Thursday night's The OC, one of the scenes features Summer and her father at the airport. After not having Thanksgiving dinner together, they end up going to Chili's in the airport. Neal pointed this one out to me as well. And, as an amateur Veronica Mars himself, he did some investigating and pointed out that there is not actually a Chili's in Orange County's airport, although there is a Chili's Too in the LAX airport, if Summer happened to be flying out of there instead.

Realism aside, the scene played as a prominent part of the show and was the perfect type of restaurant to play against the stereotype of what a Thanksgiving dinner should be like, according to the longtime standard.

Is this all-out product integration blitz a great idea? Certainly, both its being in the VM food court and as an airport Thanksgiving dinner for The OC is realistic and a good way to use a branded product, but--combined with the CW Network blatant crossovers--is it too much Chili's, does it warrant fears of a consumer backlash? My colleague Alec Austin would probably be best served to answer that question, since he has done substantial research about the good ideas and bad ideas of product placement (thus inducing an Animaniacs flashback). And while I would say that some people may be turned off by the aggressiveness of the Chili's campaigns, each instance examined on its own is not offensive.

I should mention that Chili's is a client of one of our partners here in the Convergence Culture Consortium, GSD&M, although I have not discussed any of these issues with anyone at GSD&M or with Chili's.


On November 15, 2006 at 8:29 PM, Neal Grigsby said:

Great analysis, Sam. I just wanted to put in a few more cents regarding your concluding question: is this too much? The example on The OC, I thought, did cross the line for me. When I reflect on what might have pushed it over the edge, I think it was the simple decision to have Summer's father mention the restaurant by name. When he proclaimed "I love Chili's" before they walked in my wife and I both groaned. It was both unnecessary, as the shot was framed to make it obvious where they were going, and out of character. Neil Roberts--wealthy plastic surgeon, otherwise seen eating only at Newport's snootiest establishments--is a Chili's lover? Seth Cohen could have pulled off the line with a little ironic inflection, could have made it a meta joke about the prevalence of Chili's advertising on other teen shows, even. Neil Roberts, not so much.

On November 15, 2006 at 9:47 PM, Sam Ford said:

Neal, very good point, and it's nice to have a firsthand account of last Thursday's episode. As I mentioned in our e-mail correspondence, Amanda watched it and told me about it, but I'm behind on my OC viewing and will have to catch up on DVD at some point.

From your report, though, I'll have to agree. As I mentioned with Alec's research, there is such a subtle balance between what does and doesn't work, and this is yet another instance. We live in a branded world, but most people don't unequivocally run around exclaiming their undying love for restaurants quite that way...I think your right that Seth could pull it off.

Thanks for the addition, Neal, and for bringing these various Chili's connections together for me.