Remember E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial? Even though I was a child at the time and hadn’t noticed this sort of thing before, I could still tell I was watching a Reese’s Pieces commercial at one point. That was product placement at its finest. How about Taco Bell’s role in Demolition Man? While not as critical to the story or film as Sylvester Stallone, the fast-food chain’s role was a cute gag and its acting chops were strikingly similar to Sly’s. The Italian Job’s use of Mini Coopers and The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s introduction of Mercedes’ M-Class SUV weren’t shabby, either.
A reluctant special mention must be made of Adam Sandler’s remake of The Longest Yard, an orgy of placements so pervasive it turned a record profit before any ticket was sold to the first easily-entertained moviegoer. I for one was happy there were so many brands littered throughout, since they distracted me to the point I kept forgetting what a steaming, simmering pile of crapmovie was molesting my TV screen.
Of course, the James Bond franchise sets the standard for entertaining PP, especially with cars. Sure, Bond fits in an Aston Martin as well as Halle Berry does in a bikini, but give a little love to Pierce Brosnan in the BMW 7-Series, the one acceptable case of backseat driving in world history. OO7 fans might remember 1973’s Live and Let Die for its two noteworthy debuts, Roger Moore’s and Jane Seymour’s, but I think of it more as a two-hour cheesy General Motors ad. You could play a “Spot the GM Vehicle” drinking game while watching LALD, and your living room will feel like a centrifuge before the last sparkling-new Chevy drives up and demands your admiration.
I’m not naïve (about this); I realize that product placement has been and will always be a part of movies and TV. And to be fair, it’s now become even more necessary for the TV sponsors, since digital technology lets you skip over the ad breaks cleanly. Thanks to this breakthrough, you’re no longer forced to hear people describe cheese as “melty,” a vomit-inducing plight from which even the best VCR couldn’t entirely shield you.
But there’s an annoying new trend, and I’m not talking about the little scene-blocking visual plugs that briefly occupy the lower half of the screen (DON’T get me started.) This recent development isn’t like the Seinfeld episode with the Kenny Rogers Roasters plot, and it is a far cry from James Garner getting behind the wheel of a Firebird and suddenly becoming even cooler. No, what they’ve been doing fairly recently is have the characters visibly, dramatically, almost droolingly enjoy the products and talk about them on-script. And it’s happening on my shows, which is clearly unacceptable.
There was a scene in a House episode where the characters sat quietly in a Lexus as the driver backed it into a parking space. I had a clear view of the spot thanks to the back-up cameras the director of photography was focused on, and just in case I was still conscious after getting clubbed in the head with that, the car’s owner (Dr. Taub, played by Peter Jacobson) stayed behind for a beat and looked adoringly at it while his colleagues had already disappeared inside the building. I almost shouted “get a garage!” at the screen.
I never missed an episode of Monk during its eight-season run, and after roughly the seventy-third overt reference to Sierra Springs, I suddenly no longer felt the urge to write Tony Shalhoub and ask him which brand of drinking water his character preferred.
On more than a couple of episodes of Psych, Shawn Spencer (James Roday) made it a point to talk about his favorite pretzels (Snyder’s of Hanover), and just like with products I actually do buy, I felt absolutely no urge to go out and get some simply because I saw them being hawked by a TV character. You can also attribute the no-urge to the fact that I despise pretzels–if you told me to choose between munching on a bag or giving an angry rottweiler a hernia check, I’d tell you to flip a coin.
Burn Notice, now one of my and my wife’s all-time favorite shows, may just as well be renamed The Hyundai Hour. It’s not just that the bright-blue Genesis Coupe owned by Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona sees a lot of action. It’s that other characters have actually made excuses to borrow it from her rather than use their readily available Porsche, and in one of its earliest appearances openly raved about it after riding in it. But the most shameless, glaring plug came courtesy of the ubiquitous voice-over by star Jeffrey Donovan. During a scene where Hyundai and driver were in the midst of a herd of dangerous villains, I was treated to the following passage, verbatim, by the very same narration that normally educated me about stuff like which skillet works best for fashioning a homemade bomb: “Making a getaway is always more about precise handling than raw horsepower. So in a hostile situation, rear-wheel drive is a nice advantage. That said, it doesn’t hurt to have over three-hundred horsepower at your fingertips.” As much as I enjoy this show overall, I was ready to make like Elvis and shoot the TV set, thankfully averted by my currently being in-between guns.
I’ve even been subjected to this on a show I hate, Royal Pains. It went like this: I turned on the TV just to have a little background noise while I worked, it was already on the station, and I happened to look up at the precise moment one of the annoying characters looked like he’s about to dry-hump a Toyota Sienna.
You may have noticed that most of the above-mentioned are USA Network programs, and for the record, this is coincidental. Truthfully, most of my favorite shows simply happen to air on USA.
But for the right price, I’ll say all of them do.