Written by Joan Stevenson—
Product placement: The practice of placing consumer products or brands in movies or television programs so they are featured prominently or covertly. Of course we are all aware of product placement in movies from ET‘s Reese’s Pieces to Iron Man Tony Stark’s craving for Burger King. In most cases, it seems that movies and product placement go hand in hand, but have you noticed how often it takes place during your favorite prime time shows? I’m not talking about the obvious reality show placements like X Factor, Idol, or America’s Got Talent, I mean sitcoms and dramas.
I have a particular bent when it comes to advertising/marketing, so I usually do notice it (usually to the point of annoying my friends). Even though this has been in practice for quite a while, it still surprises me, and I find the ways in which it’s done somewhat interesting. So, I decided to do a little digging and find out just how much this has been going on in TV lately and to what degrees. The interest started a few weeks ago as I was watching the CBS Sherlock Holmes drama Elementary. I noticed that Sherlock’s computer on the go was actually the Microsoft Surface tablet with snap on keyboard, and the functions of Windows 8 were featured in a scene or two as well. In a recent episode of Sons of Anarchy as the members of SAMCRO were stocking the fridge in their new club house, cases of Miller Lite were all over the counter as well as bottles in the fridge. New supernatural drama Sleepy Hollow has a scene featuring a newly resurrected Ichabod Crane (who has been dead for 147 years) having a heartfelt conversation with an OnStar clerk. I thought that one was really creative and funny. When I actually started investigating the instances of P.P. in TV I was overwhelmed with incidences far beyond the shows that I frequent. There are your standard car sponsorships when a particular vehicle is featured within an episode, as in the case of Fox’s The New Girl carrying the water for Ford in several episodes; The Walking Dead might as well be “The Walking Dodge.” In the drama Bones, at least four times a season, characters will stop and comment about the features of the Toyota that they are driving. In some cases these products and brands do pay the show for their consideration and usage of the products. That was very clear in the case of NBC comedy Chuck. Before the show was completely canceled back in 2009, sandwich chain Subway came to Chuck‘s rescue. The deal was basically, “You put our subs in your show and we’ll give you cash so you can keep making the show.” And place those subs they did. Applebee’s had a similar deal in place with Friday Night Lights. Simple as that. But in some cases there are no deals, just blatant hawking of product, from Liz Lemon’s spouting off about Diet Snapple in 30 Rock to open pandering in the case of the iPad in Modern Family. A whole episode of Modern Family was dedicated to the father, Phil wanting an iPad for his birthday. You would have thought that Apple had paid for that placement and generously showered everyone with new iPads. NOT the case. Apple does not pay for product placement. They certainly enjoyed the publicity though.
Even in the wake of TV shows who’s job it is to advertise products e.g. Mad Men and the new CBS Robin Williams/Sarah Michelle Gellar comedy, The Crazy Ones, it’s still placement. Even though Mad Men takes place in the 60s, some of the brands and products that they are coming up with campaigns for are germane today: Cool Whip, Heinz Beans, Aqua Net, Lucky Strike. etc. These are brands that still exist today. In the case of The Crazy Ones, their first episode was a big pitch for McDonald’s, and in a later episode Allstate Insurance. Whether it works or not, this practice seems to be the way to go for advertisers. I prefer a more stealthy approach. Yes, it’s still there, but it’s in the background. The comedy approach is fun, but it can only be used so many times before it gets really tired. The show 30 Rock sometimes takes this approach and drops the ad right into the flow of conversation. In the case of a dialogue disclosing the virtues of Verizon Wireless, Tina Fey shamelessly turned to the camera and said: “Can we have our money now?” The only place where it doesn’t feel as contrived is in the shows that deal directly with advertising.
In my researching, I have found one product that continues to keep popping up on the placement radar, and that is Subway. Subway seems to be winning television at the moment. Subway subs have been used in a lot of shows: Hawaii 5-0, Community, Cougartown, Chuck, South Park, American Pickers, WWE Raw and Smackdown, The Biggest Loser, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. It seems that Subway can’t swing a sub without hitting a TV show. Even the web series the 4 to 9ers has the lead character working at a Subway restaurant.
With on demand viewing and more and more people DVR-ing their television shows, that means more and more people are fast forwarding through commercials so companies are continually looking at product placement in shows to sell their wares. This is a trend that will obviously continue, but at what cost? Advertisers risk alienating viewers if the placement is too blatant or obtrusive thus creating the opposite effect they are trying to achieve. A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology1 seems to suggest that viewers are more influenced by covert product placement than when they are notified that said placement was specifically sponsored for promotional purposes.
So just how much product placement do you see on the shows you watch? Be on the look out. You might be surprised. If it’s done well, you may not recognize it at all. Well if you will excuse me, I need to pick up some lunch. Five dollar footlong anyone?