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Product Placement: A (Fun) Necessary Evil

May 19, 2011

Last Sunday when I needed a game to bring to a group gathering, I found myself purchasing a deck of UNO cards at a local store.  That this classic had been played on a recent episode of “Chuck” was not a coincidence.  Product placements work when they are handled skillfully and “Chuck” has continually raised the bar ever since Subway moved into the mall near the Buy More.  Traditionally, product placement is subtle; often the product isn’t even mentioned by name.  But rather than any attempt to stealthily incorporate a brand, “Chuck” confronts the promotions head-on, usually with humorous results.  (The round of UNO was used by the title character in a contest against a pirate/kidnapper in order to win a critical component of a lethal weapon.)

With the impact of traditional commercials on the decline, product placements have become a necessary evil.  But no one ever said a necessary evil can’t be fun.  I am appreciative when an advertiser not only helps to keep a show I love on the air, but manages to partner with them to display their wares in a way that is appropriate to the setting.  For me, this not only means matching the product to the program content and the likely viewing audience, but also conforming the copy to the writing style of the production.

Here I must take a moment to speak directly to my colleagues in the The Writers Guild of America, the craft union that represents film and television writers.  In 2005 they raised a collective voice against product placement claiming it amounted to little more than writing ad copy dressed up as storyline.  They felt it cheapened their work and subverted government regulations.  I do not support subliminal ads nor do I like it as a viewer when a character clearly veers away from his/her established nature in order to sell me something.  When I heard Fi on “Burn Notice” say how delighted she was to own a Hyundai, I felt your pain.  Her blurting out such an obvious plug broke the mood and rocked the world the writers had dedicated themselves to creating.  I guess they were going for the budget sports car concept, but doesn’t she seem more like a classic Corvette to you?  And I remember nearly busting a gut laughing when those starving folks on some “Survivor” or other gleefully received a chest full of snack chips and soda.  No one can convince me they wouldn’t have preferred a heartier, more sustaining treat like an Omaha steak.

However, when I get the impression that the creative teams at the agency and the production company held a collaborative conversation, I do my best to support the results.  As I keep mentioning, television is an expensive business and the money has got to come from somewhere.  If a product placement concept works, I’m all ears.  A recent episode of “Community” that took place in a faux spacecraft designed to promote KFC caused me to seriously debate the merits of regular versus extra crispy.  The chicken chain allowed themselves to be taken over by the mood and viewpoint of the quirky study group and in my opinion upped the company’s credibility and their image.  Actually, the Colonel has been a busy boy, also securing placement on “The Good Wife” and “Running Wilde” before playing a central role in last week’s “Breaking In”.  This last one backfired splendidly. The team was responsible for keeping the secret recipe a secret, but despite their failure the leader continued to cling to a bucket until the next commercial break.  The episode rang hallow, but it certainly wasn’t entirely the chicken’s fault.

I am aware that there are those in the media who completely disagree with me.  In fact, several of the programs I have mentioned as favorites have been called out as among the worst offenders in other publications.  I welcome the debate and I imagine the advertisers do, too.  Ultimately, they’re just trying to figure out how to sell a little soap without ticking us off too much.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Leane permalink
    June 12, 2011 9:19 am

    I totally agree with you on this. If UNO can keep CHUCK on the air and so skillfully with a wink and a nudge, then I’m all for that type of advertising. 🙂

    • June 12, 2011 11:07 am

      There’s no doubt theses are challenging times for advertisers. I keep reading about the new ways they are testing to measure audience engagement. It seems product placement is one of the easiest to track and results are strong. “Chuck” made it back on the NBC schedule, so we’ll see where they go from here.

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