Product placement's proliferation -- More companies are putting their wares in the hands of characters from ''Heroes,'' ''How I Met Your Mother,'' and more

By Jennifer Armstrong
Updated July 18, 2008 at 12:00 PM EDT

American Idol

  • TV Show
  • ABC

So, remember back in 2001 how shocked — shocked! — we all were by the blatant commercialism of Survivor‘s season 2 contestants swooning over the cans of Mountain Dew they were given as a reward? It seems positively quaint now — especially after years of American Idol judges sipping from ever-present Coke cups, the How I Met Your Mother crew prowling the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and Jack Bauer saving the world a few times over while tooling around in a Ford Expedition. And it’s all leading us to Jingles: The CBS reality show (premiering this fall) will be a product-placement pièce de résistance, in which contestants are charged with writing songs to promote real products. ”That’s the logic behind the show: creating an added benefit in today’s product-driven environment,” says exec producer (and Survivor mastermind) Mark Burnett, one of the most aggressive forces behind modern TV product placement via reality shows like The Restaurant, The Contender, and, of course, The Apprentice. Product placement — or, in the current parlance, product integration — is the new norm, and Jingles could be the TV biz’s ultimate stab at outsmarting DVR viewers who skip ads: Why not make a show that’s one long commercial?

As television bleeds viewers and the Internet siphons ad dollars away from the tube, networks are growing ever more desperate to make sure advertisers — their main revenue source — are getting as many attentive eyeballs as possible. Thus, on TBS’ The Bill Engvall Show, son Trent announces he’s taking his date to Sonic (and returns with two giant Sonic cups), while the rights to portray KITT in NBC’s Knight Rider remake went to the highest bidder, Ford Mustang. Prime-time product placement on broadcast TV was up 39 percent in the first three months of this year over the same time last year, according to Nielsen. NBC sales and marketing president Mike Pilot even went so far as to promise during the network’s annual spring presentation to advertisers that the Peacock would take their products and ”make them TV stars.”

So what’s next — Snapple Diet Peach Iced Tea: The Sitcom? Maybe. ”The advertisers fund the shows, so we have to work with them to enable our audience to see new and more stuff,” reasons NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman, a vocal cheerleader for the practice. Adds Linda Yaccarino, executive vice president of Turner Entertainment ad sales, ”That’s the only way we’ll survive.” So how much can networks get away with before audiences see it as one more reason to tune out?

Product sponsorship dates back to Milton Berle broadcasting from the Texaco Star Theater and soap operas entertaining housewives courtesy of detergent companies (hence their name). Newsman Mike Wallace even flogged Philip Morris cigarettes on his interview show in the ’50s. The practice gradually fell out of fashion in favor of 30-second spots during program breaks. Then ad-zapping TiVo arrived in 1999, and soon computers, videogames, and iPods split audiences’ attention into ever finer slices. Product placement came roaring back; characters began putting down their generic cans of cola and drinking whatever brand paid up. And they’re no longer just holding the products — brands are now mentioned in dialogue and woven into story lines. ”When audiences are multitasking — viewing a program, texting, surfing the Web — it leaves little room for an advertiser to narrow in,” says Adonis Hoffman, senior VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. ”If you can somehow get into their stream of consciousness — that seems to be the intent.” TV execs swear they can maintain their cred and rake in cash as long as they’re choosey. ”If it ever makes the viewer think too hard about why that product just appeared, then it’s poor integration,” says Andrew Cohen, senior VP of development and production at Bravo (home to Project Runway‘s TRESemmé hair Salon and Accessory Wall). Says NBC’s Silverman, ”Pairing Knight Rider and automotive makes sense, but it’d be hard to put Pinkberry inside Knight Rider.”

Even when the products may make sense, they’re often inserted with the subtlety of Crazy Eddie. In a 2006 episode of Everwood, Sarah Drew’s Hannah rhapsodized, ”I can’t believe my mom bought me a new Mercury Milan…I love the headlights!” and then gushed about the cup holders. Product reps say it’s a struggle to balance story and brand. ”We can be our own worst enemy,” admits Erich Marx, director of marketing for Nissan, a sponsor of Heroes. ”We want the car in every scene, and we want them to talk about all the selling points of the vehicle.”

Reality shows can — and do — get away with far more egregious pitching: What is Celebrity Apprentice but QVC with occasional bickering (and an actual ad for QVC)? It’s possible that a steady diet of plug-stuffed reality TV has numbed consumers to the trend’s shift into scripted programming. In an EW survey of 1,000 Americans, 66 percent of respondents said they don’t care about or mind product placement. Another 16 percent said they don’t even notice it, perhaps because some scripted shows are so darn good at it: On The Office, it feels natural for Michael’s cheesy Dundie awards to be held at a Chili’s. And if it keeps 30 Rock on the air, fans will forgive Tina Fey blatantly pushing Verizon…especially when she follows it with the fourth-wall-breaking line, ”Can we have our money now?” Says Fey, ”Our show is expensive, so we try to help offset costs… We called [our deal] out really hard to let people know. If it’s a commercial, you’re going to know it’s a commercial.”

A proposal before the FCC could make every product placement that obvious. Consumer groups — with support from actors’ and writers’ unions — are asking the agency to require more prominent warnings on product placement: Instead of the quick scroll listing sponsors in tiny print at the end of an episode, you could soon see disclaimers at the beginning and end, or even in a crawl or pop-up while the show is in progress. ”A core principle of American advertising law is that people must be told when they’re being advertised to,” says Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a group leading the charge. ”All the ways viewers discount the puffery when they’re watching ads, they can’t do when they’re advertised to in a stealth fashion.” Hoffman’s ad group AAAA is game for things like a slower end credit or a closing voice-over noting a show’s sponsorship, but he says flashing warnings would be foolish. ”At what point do viewers of broadcast television draw the line?” he asks. ”You’re watching ABC World News, and [a crawl suddenly announces that] Charlie Gibson’s suit was paid for by Brooks Brothers? Very impractical.” But having Gibson whet his whistle between stories with a can of Dr. Pepper? It may be inevitable.

The Seven-Year Pitch

A timeline of the most notable plugs since Survivor‘s first blatant product placement in 2001.



Pimping Mountain Dew and Doritos is a comparatively subtle start for Mark Burnett’s hit. The show will go on to feature a latrine that is emblazoned with the name ”Casa de Charmin.”


American Idol

The instant smash debuts as a showcase for Coke and the Ford Focus, and eventually incorporates torturous skits for The Love Guru. Oh, there’s some singing, too.


The Restaurant

The production costs of Burnett’s new reality series with enterprising chef Rocco DiSpirito are paid for entirely by sponsors American Express, Mitsubishi, and Coors.


One Tree Hill

The teen soap launches; to stay on for five seasons (and counting), it supplements its budget by becoming the scripted show with the most product placement, according to Nielsen.



Sidekick Pete Ross (Sam Jones III), whom fans dub ”Product Placement Pete” because of his ad-stuffed dialogue, enters a dirty cabin and says, ”This place needs some serious Lemon Pledge!”


The Apprentice

Burnett begins season 1 with players selling lemonade, but where’s the cash in that? By the Celebrity edition, he has a trailer full of boldface pitchmen hawking Kodak printers. Ka-ching!


Big Brother

Houseguests win a screening of Matthew Lillard’s Without a Paddle and begin an annual tradition: gratuitously raving about mediocre new releases by CBS’ sister company, Paramount.


The Oprah Winfrey Show

It isn’t a Price Is Right crossover, but in a heavily hyped ”Wildest Dreams” episode, all 276 audience members do take home a Brand! New! Pontiac! G6!


The Contender

Burnett strikes a deal with Everlast for his boxing competition: He gets a stake in the company, Everlast gets their logos plastered everywhere, and Burnett gets even richer off a low-rated show.


Top Chef

Those frequent flashes to the glittery TurboChef oven logos aside, all aspiring chefs usually chop and julienne carrots in front of a towering wall of Glad products, right?


Kyle XY

Kyle (Matt Dallas) gets a high from eating Sour Patch Kids, and mentions it early and often. Wow, it’s almost like he’s been watching his own show’s commercials!


Rescue Me

While watching a hockey game, Tommy (Denis Leary) and his firehouse pals have a manly, in-depth discussion about the replenishing virtues of Vitamin Water. If only it came out of hoses…



Nissan sponsors season 2’s premiere, in which a grateful Claire (Hayden Panettiere) gets a car. ”Oh, my gosh, the [Nissan] Rogue!” she screams. ”Thank you, Daddy, thank you!”


Project Runway

Mood Fabrics seems to have a wide selection. So are they out of generic denim the day Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum have contestants design outfits using pairs of Levi’s jeans? —Tanner Stransky

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
  • TV Show
  • 16
  • 574
  • ABC