Product Placement: The Case for Watching Ads
Product placement, with all of its subtle and not-so-subtle variations, is hamstringing the very shows that it needs to piggyback off of.
By Al Vanderklipp, University of Michigan
You know the feeling well—whether it’s the sympathetic shame of watching an actor who’s forced to sell out, or resentment at having your intelligence insulted, corporate-sponsored product placement makes for unpleasant moments that cheapen the experience of otherwise enjoyable TV shows.
Sometimes, these furtive ads can be channeled into single, unobtrusive moments—think a high-profile lawyer biting into a Ding Dong on Damages, or an inexplicable glimpse of the new Halo game in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This style of advertising borders on subliminal, and doesn’t impact the plot. When the episode ends, you’re likely to forget it ever happened.
On the other hand, ad placement is a little harder to stomach when actors struggle to deliver clunky lines that were clearly written by corporate sponsors. You can actually see the pain in the eyes of Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park in this now-infamous clip from Hawaii Five-0.
As Park examines a statue, Kim informs her that it’s a “Clifton Bowles” original. Though she says nothing to contradict him, Kim hostilely adds, “Don’t believe me? Bing it.” In what’s almost certainly a dry-heave passed off as a moment of hesitation, Park pulls out her LG™ Phone and sends out a painfully slow Bing search. “Who knew you were such an art connoisseur?” she asks, as the two grimace at each other, silently counting the seconds before they can snap back into the roles that they’re supposed to be playing.
Cringe-worthy moments like these are sprinkled throughout almost every show to ever air on American TV. They seem to crop up when you least expect it, bringing the momentum of the show to a screeching halt before allowing it to pick back up again, like an even more intrusive and annoying commercial break. The only way advertisers could be more exploitative and sleazy is to take over creative control of the program, which, of course, they do with every chance they’re given.
For instance, Cinnabon took an off-the-cuff remark from a 2013 episode of Breaking Bad and turned the first five minutes of the spin-off, Better Call Saul, into an indulgent ad for their airport-grade confections. When Pepper the Pinhead, a beloved character from the second season of American Horror Story, returned in the “Freak Show” storyline, it was revealed that her name was inspired by America’s #5 soft drink, Dr. Pepper.
In the otherwise-brilliant season 2 premiere of Rick and Morty, Jerry and Beth are aided in rescuing a deer by Coldstone Creamery employees in a pointless subplot. Any time a brand name appears in the plot of your favorite show, remember that the process is an afterthought, deliberately planned by a corporation, an outsider idea that the writers had to work into their own narrative.
Certainly, the worst offender of this kind is the sandwich giant, Subway. A tactless marketing team forces the unappealing aesthetic of the company’s stores onto the sets of shows in ways that completely disrupts the plot, and actors as bland as the sandwiches they’re pretending to sell are shoehorned in, taking screen time away from the real stars. Often, the story of the episode is altered in a way that makes the company the central focus of the program. This is especially apparent in Community’s disastrous two-part season five finale.
A cult classic show that was constantly under the threat of cancellation, the fifth season of Community seemed right up until the end to be the series’ swan-song. Creator Dan Harmon had returned, and though it was missing the talent of Donald Glover and Chevy Chase, the magic was back.
A few minutes into the finale, it became clear where the funding for the revival came from. In the episode, two seedy characters appear from out of the blue to sell the school to Subway, and the rest is too painful to even recap. Suffice it to say that even when Subway is playing the “villain,” they still attempt to cram in as many gut-wrenching, sales-boosting, sandwich-centric moments as is possible in a 22-minute timespan.
Other shows have been “saved” by Subway in the past—the cast and crew of Cougartown, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Chuck all were all sustained by the chain at the cost of being put in a constrictive creative chokehold. If you can somehow find the willpower in yourself to avoid visiting America’s blandest fast food restaurant, the entertainment world will thank you.
Of course, Subway isn’t the only offender. Any time a show you love is pulled back from the brink of a cancellation, especially in the case of a network or timeslot change, expect it to be at some point replaced, body snatchers-style, by something unholy, a shell of a program that looks and sounds like its former self, minus a soul. The endless shilling in the later seasons of Project Runway and 7th Heaven are perfect examples.
Nathan Fielder cleverly fought back against the restrictions sponsors put on his show, Nathan for You, by making Quiznos look completely unappealing. In one episode, he forces two awkward acquaintances to go on a blind date in one of their restaurants. His co-worker stumbles through unnatural lines fed to him through a hidden earpiece while his date is left uncomfortable and bewildered. The entire time, Nathan subtly mocks an oblivious, soulless marketing rep in the back room.
It’s a small victory over the tight grip that corporations have on the creative teams of TV shows with skinny budgets, but it shows the audience how ham-fisted and tacky the world of advertising can be.
There are other examples of product placement working well, or at least being handled with grace. Tony Soprano’s family drinks Coke with every meal, which only serves to show how tacky, cheap, and unhealthy the family really is.
The cast of 30 Rock sucks down Diet Snapple during a meeting condemning product placement on their network, and in another instance, Tina Fey simply looks at the camera and greedily asks “Can we have our money now?”
Jerry Seinfeld mocks George relentlessly for wearing Timberlands on a plane and bringing Pepsi to a dinner party. In fact, almost every time that this phenomenon works to benefit a show, the writers have made it appear that they’re “getting away with something,” overcoming a huge inconvenience in the writing process, and apologizing to the audience.
The fact is, product placement seems to everybody to be a necessary evil at this point, and it’s always a relief to see good humor win out over bad taste. These triumphant moments are few and far between, however, and what most people don’t realize is that they’re responsible for the exact kind of irritating, half-baked sponsored content that’s killing the pace of their most treasured TV shows.
At its most basic, TV is essentially free entertainment. Nationally broadcast stations air for free, and cable and dish networks charge for the advantage of more channels. The core idea is that the only form of “payment” required for your entertainment is that you put in the time and effort (as much as staring at a screen can be considered effort) to sit through commercials by the network’s sponsors. It’s an agreement you’re complicit in making when you sit down to watch TV.
But when a name brand worms its way into the programs, you’re being forced to “cough up” for something that you’ve already paid for. This is doubly true when you decide to purchase the series on DVD or watch it on a streaming site under a paid subscription, because these sponsored moments are no longer situated between breaks, but are immortalized within the show itself, regardless of format. For this reason, it’s always been looked at as an invaluable opportunity for brands to promote themselves, but in recent years, the corporate presence within TV shows has become much more noticeable.
The root cause for the new extremes in product placement is the rise of DVR devices in the home.
Originally a luxury product, over 60 percent of cable subscribers now use DVR, which allows the owner to skip through ads entirely. With this drop in viewership comes a drop in revenue, so advertisers and networks are essentially backed into a corner, and are forced to put their branding in a place where it will be noticed by everyone.
In this respect, the damage has already been done. There’s not a single person who would give up the modern convenience of DVR, and so, for as long as TV exists in its current form, we will have to bear with the barrage of ads that have become a part of the shows we love.
As luck would have it, cable TV is within years of being obsolete thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, which are now responsible for making their own award-winning original content. Clearly, the premiums they charge aren’t enough to support the full cost of producing original TV shows, as evidenced by Kevin Spacey’s run-ins with Pizza Hut and Playstation in House of Cards, and Pepsi and Dunkin Donuts’ presence in Orange is the New Black.
There’s evidence that Netflix has been testing ads on their site in order to bring down costs, and most Cable channels have their own websites entirely funded by advertisements. As the world of television shifts to the Internet, this is going to become the new norm.
Unfortunately for streaming sites, certain browser extensions like Adblock hide the sponsored content entirely, giving the viewer a purer TV-watching experience, and putting advertisers in the exact same position they’re in right now with DVR. Even more damning are illegal streaming sites, where ads don’t go to benefit the program’s original network at all.
The only way to ensure that in-show product placement is kept to a minimum is to bear the inconvenience of doing the duty that everyone took for granted for so many years: sitting through commercials run by real sponsors. It’s a pain in everyone’s ass, but in the long run, it’s only going to improve the quality of television and movies, and enduring two minutes of ads per day is a small price to pay for the relief of no longer having to cringe through our favorite shows.