A couple of months ago, in an episode of the USA Network series Royal Pains, one of the show’s newer additions, Emma—the long-lost half-sister of the main characters Hank and Evan Lawson—mentioned that she’d earned enough money to buy her first car. “Auto Trader made it so easy that I didn’t even have to ask anybody for help,” she told Evan. She then pulled out her smartphone, clicked on the Auto Trader app, showed the screen to the camera, and said, “I just typed in all the features I wanted, and then I saved it, and then I waited for them to send me an alert that my perfect car came through. Which it did.”
TV characters endorsing products is nothing new. Back in the days when TV series had a single sponsor, commercial breaks often had the show’s stars—still in costume—pitching whatever product or company was paying their bills. It doesn’t take much digging on YouTube to find clips of Andy Griffith raving about Maxwell House coffee or Post cereals while still in his Andy Griffith Show sheriff’s uniform; or Mary Tyler Moore using Joy dishwashing liquid in her Dick Van Dyke Show kitchen; or even Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble happily puffing away on Winston cigarettes.
But here’s the difference between what The Flintstones used to do and what Royal Pains did over the summer: Those older shows put their commercials during the commercial breaks. In Royal Pains, the pitch for Auto Trader happens in the middle of a scene, wedded to a plot point. (Emma’s new car factors in one of the season’s big storylines, allowing her to skip town in disgrace when she gets into trouble.) Royal Pains is hardly Shakespearean drama, but it’s still unnatural to have a character interrupt the story to read a few seconds of ad copy. Imagine if, in the middle of a tense scene in the White household on Breaking Bad, Walter Jr. held up a box of cereal and talked about how it was part of a nutritious breakfast.
Royal Pains is far from the only show to suffer from this latest wave of product-placement creep. It’s been common for much of the last decade-plus for TV series not just to have characters use branded computers, drive branded cars, and make calls on branded phones, but for the editors to cut in insert shots of the product, to show off its special features. But lately characters have started talking about the restaurants they’re going to, the department stores they’re shopping in, and the big movie they’re going to see. Even reality series have gotten more brazen. Project Runway, Top Chef, Survivor and their ilk have always looked to capitalize on the promotional possibilities of fashion accessories, kitchen appliances, and special rewards. But in this past season of Project Runway, more than once, contestants have taken a moment to rave about the refrigerator in their workroom’s adjacent kitchen—an appliance that has nothing to do with designing or making clothes, and isn’t part of any prize for winning a challenge. These have been awkward interjections, too. Listen close, and you can almost hear a PA off-camera saying, “Talk a little about the fridge. Make it natural.”
I don’t want to be too alarmist about how much more open product-placement has become, because again, commercials have been integrated into popular culture in all kinds of ways for generations. I think about this every time a sports franchise sells the naming rights to its stadium, or a network finds a way to superimpose an ad over open space on the field or court. Before getting too upset, I try to remember the long history of ads on the walls at baseball and soccer stadiums, and announcers pouring glasses of beer on the air during breaks between innings. The relationship between sports broadcasting and advertising is more like a tradition than a cynical sign of the times. Complaining about it makes about as much sense as complaining about ads in newspapers. (Product placement in sports does raise its own ethical issues though, which I’ll get back to in a minute.)
Also, I’ve never been all that opposed to product-placement in general, for one simple reason: We live in a world of products, and we also live in a world where lawyers get huffy when artists put those products into their art. Until fair use laws improve—or at least until claims against fair use are challenged more frequently and successfully—product-placement deals are about the only way that a movie or TV show can represent the America where people actually do shop at Target and eat at Subway. And as someone who likes to scan the frames of old movies to look for era-signifiers—like what grocery stores stocked through the decades—I’m counting on product-placement to leave an accurate record of the consumerist aspects of modern life.
There are ways to do this fairly well. The Crazy Ones was one recent show that cleverly handled the demands of the current television industry (where producers use product-placement the way that older shows used direct sponsors, to help fund the production costs) in a way that also reflected the real word. Like Mad Men, The Crazy Ones was set in an advertising agency, and like the admen of Mad Men, The Crazy Ones’ characters developed pitches for real companies like McDonald’s and Allstate. The difference is that while Don Draper’s poetic odes to Hershey bars are borderline-creepy enough to make a corporation’s lawyer flinch—“Hershey: The chocolate for psychologically damaged impostors who grew up in a whorehouse”—The Crazy Ones was more matter-of-fact about its relationship with its brands of the week. The products were just part of the milieu; aside from the campaigns they came up with, the characters neither gushed over nor disingenuously poked fun at their clients. (The latter tactic is even more distracting than the former to me, when shows pull a Wayne’s World and wink at the camera about their product-placement.)
The AMC reality competition series The Pitch is another show that’s turned a bug into a feature, embracing product-placement by having the whole show be about ad agencies trying to win a company’s business by coming up with the perfect campaign. Even though each episode of The Pitch is essentially an hour-long commercial, reiterating over and over the the best qualities of Popchips or Little Caesars or 1-800-Flowers, it’s also been a fascinating look at how modern advertisers sell companies on more than just a TV commercial or magazine spread, but instead promise to saturation-bomb consumers with ads as overt as a billboard and as subtle as a viral video.
But The Pitch also illustrates why product-placement creep is so bothersome: It’s getting harder and harder to know what’s spontaneous, organic, and sincere in popular culture, and what someone’s been well paid to slip into a piece of entertainment. That concern doesn’t begin and end with basic-cable TV series. The news business—and, again, sports broadcasting—suffers from the “serving two masters” dilemma all the time. Can a Time Warner-owned publication or broadcast report fairly on what the company’s other divisions are up to? How aggressive can ESPN be about investigating malfeasance in the NFL (or other sports leagues, for that matter) if the network is simultaneously promoting its own football broadcasts? It’s off-putting to watch ESPN news and opinion programs spend a week grabbing viewers with reports of some player’s latest scandal, only to have an ESPN-branded broadcast focus on that player on the weekend as though he were just another heroic athlete, “overcoming adversity.”
All of that is pretty far removed from the characters on The Middle talking about going to Chili’s, I’ll grant. But all relationships between storytellers and audiences are built on trust. Whether a network is reporting on how well one of its sister companies is doing, or a fictional character is scarfing down Oreos, viewers need to feel that they’re not being treated as easy marks. If nothing else, a mid-scene, undisguised pitch for Auto Trader in Royal Pains kills the suspension of disbelief, and reminds the audience of that old saying in the news business: The writer’s job is to fill the spaces that the advertisers can’t.