Most of us are familiar with product placement, where movies become quasi-commercials thanks to products like Taco Bell (“Demolition Man”), Mini Coopers (“The Italian Job”), and Reese’s Pieces (“E.T.,” arguably the Grand Poo-Bah of product placement).
And I’m sure the television audience at-large has seen it on various programs through the years, probably with the same semi-amusement they feel toward regular commercials. My earliest memory of TV product placement was “Knight Rider,” and I’m not ashamed to say one of my biggest childhood fantasies was Simonizing K.I.T.T.
I’m not naïve (about this); I realize product placement has been and will always be a part of movies and TV. To be fair, it’s now become downright necessary for the TV sponsors, since digital technology lets you skip over the ad breaks cleanly. It’s a wonderful breakthrough; you’re no longer forced to hear perky 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 it’s not the little scene-blocking visual plugs that briefly occupy the lower half of the screen (DON’T get me started.) It isn’t like the “Seinfeld” episode with the Kenny Rogers Roasters plot, and it’s a far cry from James Garner getting behind the wheel of a Firebird and suddenly becoming even cooler.
No, what I’m talking about is how TV characters have recently started to 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 73rd overt reference to Sierra Springs, I suddenly no longer felt the urge to write star 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 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 glance at the screen at the precise moment one of the annoying characters looked like he was 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.