Holy crap, product placement (post brought to you by Sprint)

Posted: December 14, 2010 in crotchety ranting, Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , , , ,

I’m of a few minds when it comes to product placement in pop culture. Mind #1 (The “pissy art purist” argument) – of course it’s not great. Every moment the makers of a given TV show or movie are making deals over, say, which scene would best showcase a giant Mountain Dew vending machine in the background is a moment they’re not working in service of the acting or the script.

Mind #2 (The “Fuck it” argument) – But what did you expect? For some ungodly reason, Comcast gave me a device that allows me to effectively live in a world where there are no commercials. I tape EVERYTHING, and I start everything 20 minutes later. I love DVR. But it’s not like advertisers saw it, said, “Aww, darn. I guess they beat us! Better just make larger billboards.” No. They figured out a work-around: embedding commercials within the context of the TV show I’m watching.

It’s not like TV shows have a choice in the matter – ads pay the bills. No ads, no budget (yeah yeah, BBC, shut up). So, grumbling about its negative effects is just grumbling. No sense worrying about it. Especially since…

Mind #3 (“That’s MISTER Positive to you” argument) – …you ever watch old TV shows and you can’t stop staring at the off-brand cereal boxes and sodas with names like “Major Crunch” and, I dunno, “Senator Peper”? Or find yourself wondering, when a character walks into Cheers and asks for “a beer,” what kind of beer they’re being served?

(At least “Lost” had fun with this, making up backstories for their fake scotches and stuff – but like every little detail on “Lost,” it ended up being distracting in a whole new way.)

So, from this point of view, I actually LIKE when a character eats a brand I eat, or requests something specific . In an episode of “Terriers,” recovering alcoholic Hank – reeling and rutterless on the day of his ex-wife’s wedding – is finally frustrated enough to march into the hotel bar and ask tentatively, “Do you have any Famous Grouse?” Now, yeah, it’s a throw-away detail and works as product placement, but it also tells you a shitload about Hank:

That on the day the love of his life is marrying another man, on a day where he’s ready to toss away over a year of hard-won sobriety…he still goes for a sensibly priced, second-from-bottom-shelf scotch, one you know he’s awfully familiar with. He goes for a memorable comfort.

This is a detail you don’t get no matter HOW good Charles Widmore tells you MacCutcheon is.


The other night I watched an episode of “Fringe” where the product placement blew my fucking mind.

The scene: Peter and Olivia are questioning the mother of a dead girl, whose harvested organs are being claimed from their new owners by an unknown suspect. Peter’s phone rings – it’s Astrid back at the lab, and she has some important information on the evidence. He goes outside to take the call.

And then things turn into an extended commercial for the dumbest feature you can find on the new Sprint smartphone, the Qik.

Peter holds out his arm so he can see the whole screen, and there is ASTRID’S FACE IN REAL TIME, delivering the crucial information. Cut to: the lab, where Astrid is holding her QIK VIDEOPHONE with both hands, probably because like me, her hands shake a little and so she can never get an unblurry photo on a camera phone.

Now, I don’t actually remember any of the details Astrid was imparting, all I know is she looked worried, and apparently that was something she truly wanted to convey to Peter because why else use a video phone feature?

Not helping was the general sense that it was a scene crammed in there ONLY to show the Qik’s video feature, since otherwise it would’ve been a 5-second cut of Peter on the phone, saying “OK. Thanks, I’ll tell her.” Or the fact that it was crammed in so artlessly that, with its picture-screens being the only things moving in the shots, they couldn’t help but recall Clutch Cargo’s mouth.

Fortunately someone on YouTube thought the scene was as ridiculous as I did, so here, look at these 24 seconds:

So, assuming we’re stuck with product placement until advertisers find a way to shoot beams into our skulls directly (you be careful, 3D-TV buyers), what’s the best way to insert a commercial? This is just a first draft – and it would only really work in “Fringe,” but…

INT: Peter and Walter are driving in Peter’s car as Peter gets off his phone.
WALTER: Peter, what carrier do you use?
PETER: Sprint.
WALTER: Are you happy with it? I’m not really up to speed on cellular phones.
PETER: Actually yeah, I’ve never had a problem with them, and I really like my phone.
WALTER: Can I see it? Your… “Qik”?
PETER hesitates – Walter is eying the phone a little too…romantically – but then relents, slapping it onto Walter’s palm. Walter immediately pulls out a tiny screwdriver and starts messing about with the phone.
WALTER: Yes. Yes, this is…quite elegant. This will do nicely.
PETER: …For what?
WALTER: Nothing for you to be concerned about.

  1. braak says:

    That’s not so bad. On CSI:NY once, while the two guys were on there way into a house to…I dunno, look for evidence, or whatever it is they do on that show…Det. Messer’s phone starts ringing. It’s his girlfriend calling! He has a Coldplay song for a ringtone on his Sprint smartphone.

    He then ignores the call and they go about their business. This was a fifteen-second break from the action of the story that managed to be both an ad for Sprint AND an ad for Coldplay, and it’s like they didn’t even TRY to make it a part of the story.

  2. Jeff Holland says:

    I think CSI:NY was just thankful Sprint remembered there was a third CSI they could advertise on.

    I’m actually surprised, I think I just assumed Sprint spent all its money at Fox, anyway, getting Jack Bauer to cut off dudes’ fingers and scan the prints into the CTU database using his SPRINT phone.

    Or it’s possible I just watch a lot more Fox shows.

  3. I finally remembered one of the better ones I saw. It was on Castle, first season. The FBI genius swoops in and as the New York cops are running around putting evidence in bags and talking about waiting a day to get prints back, the FBI woman takes a photo with her iPhone and says “No need, we’ll have results in an hour.” And Castle responds “There’s an app for that?”

    It was funny and vaguely subtle.

  4. Jeff Holland says:

    ABC and Apple must have a good rapport with each other. I was also thinking of last year’s “Modern Family,” when ALL Phil really wanted for his birthday was a new iPad (on sale that week, if I recall correctly). A lot of people complained about how blatant it was, but to me it felt right. This was exactly in keeping with Phil’s established character up to that point – it was a new shiny gadget and who cares what it does, he wanted one.

    Also, there was no shilling about its great features or anything – in fact, the rest of the family viewed it as vaguely stupid, and their opinions were not changed by the end of the episode.

  5. John says:

    I read something about product placement in daytime soaps, something I’m too lazy to go look up, but the product placement was absurd. For instance, there was a picnic scene where the male character expounds for upwards of 45 seconds on the benefits of Chex at a picnic. There was also an episode of Bones last year that was essentially an hour long commercial for Avatar,

  6. […] year, if you’ll recall, it was the Clutch-Cargo-esque drama-tisement for the Sprint Qik, a hilariously awkward videophone feature that seems to have been completely […]

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