Our business must adapt or die, and like it or not product placement is front and center in reality TV. By the way, when do we get to stop calling it “reality TV?” Doesn’t reality TV make up, like, 90% of programming these days? Isn’t it on every single network, including CNN and The Weather Channel? Why don’t we just call it “Regular TV,” and then specify the other stuff, like “daytime judge TV” or “lawyers TV” or “vampires TV?”
Anyway. I have been thinking about Product Placement: that distasteful practice of seamless advertising which every reality TV, excuse me, Regular TV producer or editor knows so well. From cutting in “mini commercials” in the middle of a scene, or shooting lingering close-ups of the featured product in the foreground, or scripting dialogue for characters in what is supposed to be an unscripted show, or simply basing a scene solely around the product, we sausage-makers have had to find newer, more insidious ways to work that product into a show. Most times it feels fairly innocuous — the crab fisherman drinks coffee out of a Dunkin’ Donuts mug, or the housewife has an array of Blizz frozen yogurt displayed during a spa party — but when it is bad, it is so, so bad.
I was part of the early days of product placement, back when Survivor built their challenges around rewards of Doritos. Does that still happen? I have haven’t watched Survivor in 10 years although I have a lot of friends who still work on it and I love that it still rates. Frankly, I miss those days. Back in the early days of reality TV, it felt like a product was clearly being promoted, with no pretense of anything other than “this particular bit of entertainment was sponsored by this particular company for your pleasure. Now pay attention, because these starving people are about to literally try and kill each other in order to eat a snack which you, the viewer, can easily procure simply by strolling down to your local 7-11.” I remember Mark Burnett embracing product placement and saying that we should harken back to television in the 50’s, where each half hour was preceded by a commercial (made by the network) which proclaimed “this show is brought to you by X.” The advertiser would sponsor the entire half hour of programming. If you say it right up front then you don’t have to jam it into a scene where it doesn’t work. Regardless, he found a way to make it work, building challenge after challenge around product after product. Advertisers and sponsors lined up and everyone was happy and now he sleeps on a mattress stuffed with thousand dollar bills.
Then things started to change. Network TV started digitally inserting products into scenes — a box of cereal would suddenly appear on the table in between two sitcom characters, for example. But scripted TV got off easy. Reality TV took on the brunt of the product placement because producers could easily make characters use commercial products in “the real world” and because it was (supposedly) unscripted, it was supposed to feel more real when the character would climb into a Ford Escape and remark how comfortable the seats were.
This has gone on for years. Producers universally dread product integration, because we are the ones who have to ask our “talent” to film take after take of something that is supposed to be real. We have to instruct our camerapeople to shoot a certain amount of closeups of the product, playing to the label so that the viewer could clearly see the Budweiser or AmEx logo, while at the same time “Greeking” (blacking out) every single other logo in the series. The only thing worse than asking non-actors to be actors is asking non-actors to be actors AND hawk a product. Even real actors aren’t great at selling products (see: Brad Pitt / Chanel). Then we have to work with editors to cut a scene about a product without interrupting the flow of the show itself. It always feels dirty and jarring and it’s one of the primary reasons why I can’t watch reality TV — I can see sponsors’ grubby fingerprints all over it.
A few years ago I produced a special for NBC called “Teleflora Presents: America’s Favorite Mom.” I had just finished “Whale Wars” and wanted something short, safe and on dry land. It was a two-week gig and one of the only jobs I’ve ever done just for the money. Those kind of jobs never work out well for me. This particular one-time special was sponsored by Teleflora and Kraft. Specifically Kraft American Singles. Kraft wanted to push their processed cheese singles as the “go-to” cheese when it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches. My job was to travel around the country filming segments with candidates who had been nominated for “America’s Favorite Mom.” These moms were universally amazing. I met a mom who was a foster mom to 10 kids, another who was a grandmother who cooked for her whole neighborhood, one who was a servicewoman home from Iraq, and another who was a blind stay-at-home-mom for a special needs child. For each segment, I had to ask the mom to cook a grilled cheese sandwich while her kids gathered around her (in each city, after I picked up the rental car, I would stop at a supermarket to buy the cheese and white bread, in case the moms didn’t have the right kind at home). Then, while the mom was cooking, I would interview her on camera about why she thought she was nominated for “America’s Favorite Mom.” These interviews would then be edited into a short video that was to play during a live taping, where AFM would be announced. About halfway through filming, when I had already completed interviews with three of the four moms, I was told by my boss that I needed to work Kraft’s new catchphrase into the “scene.” At some point during the making of the grilled cheese sandwich, I needed to prompt one of the kids to say “OOEY GOOEY!!!” Then came more rules. The sandwich should be cut diagonally. The kid should pick up the sandwich with two hands, and then pull the halves slowly apart while saying “OOEY GOOEY!!” and staring covetingly at the cheese. The mom should be standing slightly off to the side, but still in the shot. The kid should be transfixed by the wondrousness of the cheese “as if he’s in a trance of joy and anticipation!” The cheese needed to be melted enough to pull apart, but not so much that it would drip. The kid could not say “Ooey” or “gooey” or “mmmm;” it had to be “OOOEY GOOEY!!!!” I remember hitting “mute” on my phone and saying ” you have to be fucking kidding me” before reluctantly agreeing to the odious task. I thanked my stars that I only had one mom left and that up until now the only sponsor request I’d had to deal with was placing Teleflora bouquets in the backgrounds of each interview. I told myself “it’s just a job.”
It was not until the blind mom was actually at the stove, trying to make the grilled cheese sandwich by listening to how high the flame was, that I came to my senses. She was willing to put herself, and her child, in danger to bow to the wishes of an idiotic sponsor. I took over. I made 10 grilled cheese sandwiches for the mom, her kids and the camera crew. We ate them off camera and then I interviewed her in the living room with no processed cheese slices in sight.
Anthony Bourdain’s post below regarding Travel Channel’s use of his name and likeness to sell Cadillacs without is permission is inspired. If only more people were allowed to speak up and be heard. If only there was another way to sell advertising instead of crowbar-ing it into programs or filming commercials as if they are part of the TV show in order to “fool” the viewer into not fast forwarding past it.
“I don’t know karate—but I know ka-razy” –James Brown
For the past eight years, I’ve been making a television show called NO RESERVATIONS. I wrote it. I executive produced it. And I appeared in it. My partners and I always tried hard to make it good.
During that time, I understood the way…