May 6, 2008
The Riches and Product Placement Gone Wrong

In trying to catch up on my reading this week, I noticed that C3 Consulting Researcher Grant McCracken continues his look at product placement done poorly over at FX, this time writing about a conversation about buying a GMC as part of the dialogue of the show.

Grant first writes about a character in The Riches driving a GMC car, noting that GMC both appears throughout the show and is advertised at several points during commercial breaks. He says, "I don't like product placement, as I have argued here, but as long as we TIVO through the ads this is perhaps forgivable."

However, it is the insertion of a pitch about the GMC into dialogue that becomes the blatant offender here. Grant writes:

Holy ****. This may very well be the most egregious example of commercial interference ever registered in our culture. Recall that my original objection to FX was that they put an ad for one of their shows in the corner of the screen for the duration of an episode. I thought this was a little much. But to put a sales pitch in the middle of the dramatic action, and to reduce a dramatic genius like Minnie Driver to a product pitcher, this is insufferable.

Grant ends with a call to action, wondering how the audience can discourage such blatant pitching in the middle of a show and questioning what commercial force might be held responsible for such a deal.

He writes:

I am not squeemish about the interactions of culture and commerce. I am inclined to agree with the likes of Tyler Cowen that on the whole, culture and commerce have been better for one another than generally supposed by the guardian intellectual. But this FX event must mark the limiting case. Surely, it stands as proof that there are moments when culture and commerce must keep their distance.

This is a topic of great interest to me. There was a chapter of what started as my Master's thesis work about the history of product placement and the practice's current status in American culture. I am a little bit more optimistic than Grant, writing about how soap operas might be able to help themselves escape from drastically lowered budgets by embracing product placement, pointing to various fan conversations which suggested they might embrace the concept.

The key, however, is GOOD product placement. By good, I don't mean maximum exposure for the company. In fact, I still don't understand how the success of advertising is often measured by length of exposure, etc., rather than quality of exposure. The problem with inserting advertising into art like a television series is that it cannot be automated.

I've written before about product placement done well--in this case Applebee's in Friday Night Lights. I wrote:

The Applebee's integration into FNL is the best use of product integration I've ever seen. The restaurant is a prominent part of the story at many points, as one of the key characters works as a waitress there and it's the de facto place to stop in town for a nicer meal, if players or their parents aren't going to the local burger shop or the "Alamo Freeze." Actually, the "Alamo Freeze" is a Dairy Queen, and you can easily tell that's the case, complete with partial shots of the Dairy Queen sign and Blizzards on the menu. My understanding is that it is even filmed at a Dairy Queen in Austin, Texas, but that they've chosen to make it a localized restaurant instead.

Applebee's is a different story. Many important plot points and character conversations have happened over a meal at the restaurant, complete with "Curbside to Go" flyers on the table, as one would have at any Applebee's. And I've seen few viewers complain about it, because the use of the brand only heightens the realistic feel of the show. For a moderately small town like Dillon, this is just the type of restaurant people would be excited about, a chain restaurant that somehow says Dillon is a bigger town than it should be.

It seems as if that product placement was integrated from the writing team themselves, just as the clever use of Snapple on 30 Rock and other great creative examples of using brands well. The key to the Applebee's scenes is that, in many cases, Applebee's is never mentioned in dialogue, other than suggesting meeting there, etc. Tyra isn't always shown smiling and happy working at Applebee's. It's just part of the town, one of the nicer restaurants but not something that is celebrated at the expense of the show. Eric Nehrlich, on the other hand, writes about a clumsier example of product placement from FNL, in which Jason Street tries to sell an SUV at Buddy Garrity's car lot. Even that, however, doesn't seem as blatant as this example from The Riches, though, and was woven into the current storyline in a meaningful way. Further, at least Buddy or the dealership isn't celebrated, since it's the site of his affair and since Buddy has that "used car salesman" vibe, even as he's pitching people the Chevy vehicles.

I'll have more on the key to good product placement, as well as the Consortium's thoughts on "reserve product placement" and some notes from my thesis work on the subject, in two follow-up posts this afternoon.



i think it was back in november that 30 rock had a very funny and ironic product placement with a verizon cell phone. i think the set up was that jack and the woman he was seeing (edie falco. don't remember her character's name) switched phones. there were a several references, and finally, tina fey turns to the camera and say something along the lines,"okay verizon, can we get our money now?" witty, funny and ironic.

also of interest, a reuter's interview with sag president, alan rosenberg.