Brands on TV (a.k.a. farts at a tea party)


I was watching Columbo yesterday. I have to do something to recover between posts. And I was surprised to see the immortal Mr. Falk drinking an unbranded cola. It was the episode about the architect (aka Howard Roark, aka Frank Lloyd Wright) who deposits his murder victim in the foundations of a building. You know it, I’m sure.

Anyhow, they are digging up the foundation and, well, it takes a long time, so Columbo has a soda. The can is silver with a vertical racing stripe. And that’s it: no name, no styling, no branding. I am sure the producers thought a branded cola would be distracting, but I have to say an unbranded one was more distracting. It ruined the whole scene for me.

Brands have not been welcome in imaginary worlds. Ian Fleming used them in the Bond novels. Bret Ellis did the same in American Psycho. But generally brands are excised or excluded from acts of the imagination. Alice Munro’s characters never seem to buy anything and when they do, it’s always the generic choice. Smart shoppers, apparently. (How much of our literary culture has engaged in this wishing away of commerce? Quite a lot, it seems, and quite enough for a Ph.D. thesis on the topic. Anyone?)

Thanks to product placement, brands do sometimes make an appearance. In January alone, Rolex appeared in WB’s Grounded For Life, iPod appeared in NBC’s Committed, Oreo appeared in CBS’s The King of Queens, Nintendo appeared in ABC’s 8 Simple Rules, and Hershey appeared in Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle. (Watching TV, looking for product placements. It’s pretty much all I do.)

Naturally, we hate product placement. It’s like someone has just dragged a needle across the record. All suspension of disbelief stops abruptly. Oh, Rolex! And that’s it for our favorite show. It is still worse in the movies. And it is never clear to me why someone would put a $60 million production at risk by putting a Coke can on a table. The movie is diminished. So is the Coke can.

But now that advertising is fighting to make itself heard against the wall of sound that is contemporary culture, product placements of one kind or another are very much the coming thing. Product placement has been moving into the news for some time. It is now also struggling to get a foothold in the blogging world. ( )

Product placement is seen as a way of getting brands out of the dense shipping lanes of marketing into quiet water and real visibility. It is hoped that a Coke can will be the only brand we will see all movie, and certainly the only cola brand. (Though surely, it won’t belong before Hollywood producers are chopping up their movies and selling “front end” exposure to one brand and “back end” exposure to its competitor.)

I don’t object to the presence of brands on TV or at the movies. After all, the real world is thoroughly branded, and an imaginary world should follow suit. What I do object to is the presence of a brand: one brand, a sudden can of Coke that looks less like naturalism than a Martian landing.

Hollywood, repeat after me:

Many brands. Good. One brand. Bad.

Alice, may I have your full attention:

Many brands. Good. No brand. Bad.

Time to end the embargo.

5 thoughts on “Brands on TV (a.k.a. farts at a tea party)

  1. Independent George

    What really bothers me is the way computers are used on TV and in the movies. You rarely see anything even remotely resembling a realistic user interface. It’s almost as if the bigshots in Hollywood have never used computers in their lives, and that it’s the assistants who do all the real work…

    Apple is, unsurprisingly, very good at this game. As my Mac-using friends always point out, you can always tell who the hero/villain is based on what OS they use. The bad guys always use Windows, and the good guys always use Apple.

    I think Seinfeld merits some special praise for its ability to integrate its rather shameless product placements in the most thoroughly enjoyable manner possible (Junior Mints, anyone?).

  2. jill

    Please, with all due respect, don’t be making suggestions to Alice. She’s perfect just as she is.

  3. Liz

    ” I am sure the producers thought a branded cola would be distracting, but I have to say an unbranded one was more distracting. It ruined the whole scene for me.”

    Grant, honey, you need to get out more.


  4. Skeptikos

    I was recently in a discussion group concerning the impact of the DMCA. We were informed by a patent/copyright specialist that you probably cannot use a product in fiction at this time without permission. (there is a minor allowance for parodies, but it is minor-As an example the Book/Movie “The Coca-Cola kid, the only Eric Roberts movie I ever liked). So, it is potentially illegal to allow both a Coca-Cola product and a Pepsi product to be seen in the same production: IF-they do not agree to it (or perhaps it would be better said that it would be allowed IF they did not protest it, but using it without prior approval might result in a lawsuit). The distraction you felt while watching the big C (and I do remember that episode, I watched slavishly as a kid) is probably a programing issue. At the time of production, you probably would have been distracted, now however (and especially with your interests) the programing has been altered (by group dynamic permission, if there is such a thing) and you notice it.

    I have noticed the un-natural ways “products” have been treated over the past several years in reference to video arts. However, the placements seem entirely driven by the intricacy of modern Copyright/Patent/Trademark laws, rather than the market.

  5. Dustin

    I was always under the impression that, prior to the big early-90s Branding Rapture — that is, before the corporations realized there was big money to be had by getting Columbo to drink Coke — that rather than the corp. paying media producers for showing their product, the producers had to pay the corps for using their trademark. Old TV is loaded with unbranded objects — I bet there’s a TV prop museum somewhere with cases of cans like the one you saw in Columbo. Remember all those old detergent commercials, where the “leading brand” was represented by a vaguely-Tide-looking abstract art piece?

    The reason it looked out of place was not because the producers ignored the brand saturation that it’s audience lived in, I think, but because they could not predict the brand saturation that *we*, today, live in. Not that there weren’t brands in the Age of Columbo, of course, but they hadn’t yet become the kinds of pseudo-tangible identities they are today. People simply weren’t asking “ah, but what kind of cola is Columbo drinking, there?”

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