The Rights and Wrongs of Television Product Placement


In the age of the DVR, television product placement has become something of a necessary evil. With commercials being constantly skipped or erased altogether, advertisers’ options for showcasing their products on hit shows has been reduced to physically putting them on set, and sometimes giving them a role as a primary character, as laughable as that sounds.

This relatively new trend of blatant production placement on television is now reaching nearly epidemic proportions, and as more and more consumers turn to DVRs and the internet, I fear it’s only going to get worse.

So knowing that we don’t really have a choice in the matter, and product placement will continue on TV until they figure out how to project ads directly into our brains, I’m going to go ahead and lay out what makes an abrasive mid-show ad, and what makes a good one, because yes, surprisingly enough it is possible.

But first let’s start with the ones that really piss us off. I’ve highlighted a select few shows that egregiously abuse the audience with integrated ads during their episodes. These ads cause you to break with the reality of the show, and focus purely on the fact that you know you’re being sold a product, something that hurts both the show and the brand.

24 – Ford, Cisco, Sprint


Remote document signing for STOPPING TERRORISTS.

I’ll start with my titular picture here, and the reason I wanted to sit down and write this post in the first place. This season of 24 has completely abused its product placement privileges. Out of the three major advertiser’s on the show, only Ford has shown any degree of restraint, with a quick shot of an Explorer here and there, and no obvious rubbing of logos in faces.

But Cisco and Sprint? Ugh.

A few weeks ago, Cisco’s over-the-internet document signing service, WebEx (as seen above), was literally mentioned by name as the president issued an order to pardon a defector. Cisco logos routinely pop up on screens throughout the show, and last season, Cisco’s Telepresence was used by the President to conduct virtual meetings with heads of state.

As annoying as that has been, at least the technology is consistent with the show’s theme. Sprint could have done something similar, but instead they’ve been peppering the show with close-ups of the instinct nearly every single episode, with the phone singlehandedly saving the country from destruction as it streams images of bio-weapons to FBI headquarters.


Our hero.

The funniest part about this is that these phones don’t have clearly visible Sprint logos on them in real life, so the show has been forced to slap giant Sprint badges on them that can be seen from a good mile away, just in case you couldn’t figure out just what brand was saving our fine nation.

Smallville – Ford, Toyota, Apple, Stride, any number of others


“Wow, this brand new 2008 Toyota Tundra is as tough as I am!”

Without a doubt, Smallville has had some of the most horrendous abuses of product placement I’ve ever seen on television.

Remember how I said Ford was subtle with 24? Well, not so, a few years back on Smallville, when Chloe, on a mission to help Clark, was trapped by a suspicious security guard. So what did she do? Seduce him, like any good reasonably cute sidekick would? Of course not. The conversation went like this:

Guard: That’s a mighty nice car you’ve got there.

Chloe: Yeah, brand new 2006 Fusion.

Guard: Wow, man look at all those cupholders! And what’s that?

Chloe: Oh, it’s an extra space for more storage. And there’s also Bluetooth integration!

This went on for some time. Clark was safe. Thank God for those cupholders.

But by far, the worst instance of advertising I have EVER seen on television was the Smallville episode that was quite literally a full length Stride gum commercial. Watch:

The plot of the episode was this: A OneRepublic concert is being held in an abandoned Stride gum factory (which was shut down because the flavor lasts too long). One concertgoer, Pete Ross, accidentally chews a Kryptonite-laced piece of Stride gum, which gives him Mr. Fantastic stretchy powers for the duration of the episode.

Good. Lord. No.

So those are the bad ones. And now you’re asking, how can you possibly make product placement good? Well the two examples I’m about to show you go about it in differing ways, but neither of them are particularly upsetting. How is that possible?

30 Rock – Verizon, Apple, McDonalds, etc.

In the above clip, you see how 30 Rock deals with product placement. They make it so loud and obnoxious that the ad is a joke in itself. In addition to Verizon, the last time I remember them doing this, they were using the McFlurry as a way to reunite old friends and solve relationship problems.

The issue with this kind of tactic however, is that it has to be used sparingly, and it can only really be used on a show like 30 Rock, where such an off-the-wall joke doesn’t feel out of place. A drama definitely couldn’t get away with that, and neither could most comedies. But 30 Rock has lucked out, finding a way to make us look directly at an ad, but laugh anyways.

The Office – HP, Chrysler, Staples, Chili’s, Benihana

Here we see a different tactic, where The Office can also base an entire episode around a brand, yet offend no one, as product placement rarely even comes to mind. There have been Office episodes set entirely in Chili’s and Benihana (that one was even called “A Benihana Christmas”) and there was even a three episode story arc revolving around Dwight quitting Dunder Mifflin to work at Staples.


I’ll buy it.

But why do these episodes work, when Smallville’s Stride endeavor crashes and burns?

It has to do with the tone of the show. All of the brands fit with the plot ever so smoothly. Michael totally would think it’s a good idea to take an important client to Chili’s. Dwight would quite his job and work at a direct real-life competitor, Staples. And come on, Michael Scott totally would drive a Chrysler Sebring convertible. That placement might actually be achieving the exact opposite effect Chrysler wants…

In Conclusion

I guess my best advice to companies would be SUBTLETY. Back in the first few seasons of 24, I used to catch a quick flash of Jack’s phone and say, “Hey, I have Jack Bauer’s phone, that’s awesome.” But now with logos plastered all over it, some of the thrill has gone out of such a discovery.

Have your character drive a Ford, but don’t place a shot that’s set squarely on the badge for three seconds. Have your character drink a Coke, but don’t have them turn the label so it’s perfectly facing the camera. We still know what it is.

I have no problem with products in shows when it fits within normal standards of social behavior. People use products every day, that’s life, but to advertise your product in a show without losing any goodwill is going to require something most advertisers know nothing about: tact.

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One Comment

  1. What about Heroes and Nissan? I haven’t watched in a while, but I remember that Hero and Ando HAD to get a Nisson Versa from the dealership. I thought that one actually worked, but when Clair got the Rouge for her 16th birthday, and then immediately had it stolen? It was blatant and didn’t really make me want to drive a nissan rougue.

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