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McProduct Placement

Posted by Matthew Gilbert  February 17, 2009 06:41 AM

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After last Thursday's "30 Rock," a flurry of controversy arose over the episode's major and relentless plugging of a McDonald's product. (Yeah, OK, the product was the McFlurry, although I hate to contribute to all the promo.) Anyway, Tina Fey promptly denied that the plug was paid for, in the way "Saturday Night Live" was paid to promote Pepsi in the MacGruber skits a few weeks ago.

I found the denial hard to believe, despite Fey's clear statement in New York magazine: "It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the references to McDonald's in last night's episode of '30 Rock' were in no way product placement. (Nor were they an attempt at product placement that fell through.) ... We were actually a little worried they might sue us."

"30 Rock" has boldly incorporated products into scripts for money for years now, and I couldn't imagine why the show would suddenly do it for free. In fact, when I was watching the McFlurry business on "30 Rock," I thought the blatantness was part of the joke. The "30 Rock" writers have consistently managed to commercialize their scripts and make their scripts about the commercialization of TV at the same time. (Check these classics.) Why would the denial give Fey "great pleasure," after she has been so open to -- and so funny about -- product placement in the past?

And then, this weekend on "Saturday Night Live," there was yet another McFlurry plug. In the Cougar's Den skit, Kristen Wiig talks about hanging around a McDonald's Playplace and buying a kid a McFlurry. Here's the skit -- the reference is 4 minutes in:

Come on NBC! This is just too coincidental for me, especially since this weekend's entire "Saturday Night Live" -- with Alec Baldwin and Jack McBrayer -- was such a "30 Rock" fest. Maybe NBC is just trying to seduce McDonald's, and Fey was telling the truth -- I don't know.

I long ago stopped whining about the tricky ways that product placement is now wound into scripted TV storylines -- because it's so rampant (on "Desperate Housewives" in particular), not because it doesn't still concern me. But at least let's not pretend that scripts aren't up for sale, that the division between church and state is not extremely porous.

What do you think of building scripts around products for money? Is this a TV survival mechanism in the DVR era, or a sellout?

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29 comments so far...
  1. I love when company's pay for product placements that seem to reflect negatively on a company. It's hilarious..

    "Toyota: The choice getaway car for bankrobbers and rapists everywhere!"

    Posted by nate February 17, 09 08:34 AM
  1. Ha! Shades of Captain Renault. Of course it's a sell-out, this is television!!! From Texaco Star Theater to Fred and Barney plugging cigarettes to the fact that we still call them "soap operas," television and radio before it have always been driven by advertising. Now that many people either watch on DVR or DVD, they have to get the advertising into out brains somehow. These are people who have covered every surface in America with trademarks and slogans, did anyone really think they would give up in the face of TiVo and Hulu?

    Posted by John February 17, 09 08:34 AM
  1. are you kidding me? You spent time writing this? Who gives a crap if they are doing product placement or not...

    Posted by pepsigrueber February 17, 09 08:40 AM
  1. My favorite episode of any show featuring product placement was the Arrested Development episode "Motherboy XXX," in which the entire cast seems to enjoy Burger King, including Ron Howard, the narrator, agreeing to Tobias's claim "It's a wonderful restaurant!" by exclaiming "It sure is!" Apparently the original title of the episode was "Tendercrisp Chicken Comedy Half-Hour," which acutally would have made it all the funnier.

    To add to the over-the-top nature of the product placement, Barry (played by Henry Winkler), jumps over a shark as he heads to Burger King. Absolutely brilliant writing.

    Posted by Damian February 17, 09 08:48 AM
  1. I think it is the way TV needs to run, and we better get used to it. Beats watching commercials!!

    Posted by Matt February 17, 09 08:51 AM
  1. Unless you want television shows or movies to make up fake products for their characters to use, then I dont know what the big deal is. If they are supposed to be living in the same world that we are, why is it bad that they are using the products that we use? Ive never understood people's fascination with this.

    Posted by Matt February 17, 09 09:01 AM
  1. Who cares about product placement? Is it really that bad? I can watch a person get blown away as long as they don't finish with "nothing destroys like a Smith & Wesson from my local K-Mart". Come on and relax people. Only ones who care are the other companies. BK and Wendy's are the ones upset. Personally i'd like to see more prodcut placement, especially from Victoria's Secret.

    Posted by Carl February 17, 09 09:04 AM
  1. I don't really have a problem with product placement unless it takes away from the show. If it doesn't distract - it's fine. On "Numbers" last Friday, there was a clear product placement that was so awkward it made the couple of scenes it was mentioned in just silly.

    And really I should be sympathetic as I'm part of the problem - I TIVO everything I watch these days and haven't seen a commercial in years. How else are they supposed to reach me.

    Posted by bosstowner February 17, 09 09:08 AM
  1. A McFlurry is the quintessential declasse dessert, which made it the perfect foil for the most outrageous and absurdly decadent dessert that Jack wanted to indulge in. If the contrast weren't so extreme. the joke would fail. So it doesn't seem in this case that the script was built around the McFlurry, but that the use of the McFlurry made the script work.
    On product placement in general--stop whining! We get network tv for free in our houses and we circumvent the ads with our DVR's. There is no free lunch.

    Posted by Patsy February 17, 09 09:10 AM
  1. It is clearly a survival mechanism in the DVR/Tivo era-- so unless you're willing to give up the ability to fast-forward through the commercials, I would get used to it. I personally don't care about the product placements, if they are integrated well into the show-- and I think 30 Rock has done a decent job of it so far (see also: the Larry Sanders hilarious Garden Weasel bits for a historic precedent)
    As for Fey's claim that the McFlurry bit wasn't product placerment, I'm inclined to believe it only because I can't think of a reason to lie about it, when they have been quite transparent about previous product placements in the show. I always hate it when tv shows use fictional products anyway-- Did anyone complain about the Junior Mint Episode of Seinfeld? Or any of the other countless product placements during that show's run? Can we be sure that those weren't paid product placements? Would it make the episodes any less funny?

    Posted by jd February 17, 09 09:34 AM
  1. I think Casey Wilson sucks the life out of every skit she's in, that's what I think. She seems to think that speaking in a deep voice=hilarity.

    And yeah, that was total product placement, and it was pretty obnoxious. I even find their "clever" product placements obnoxious, because it's like they're trying to have their cake and eat it too. It's as if they're saying, "yeah, we're taking their money, but we're still above it." But you're not. It's still selling out.

    Posted by Pawtucket Pat February 17, 09 09:36 AM
  1. TV viewers have just come to accept it. There isnt anything we can do. I am not going to stop watching 24 because they sold their soul for a Hyundai Genesis placement during Monday's episode.

    Posted by mark February 17, 09 09:37 AM
  1. If Obama got it for free so should Mcdonald's

    Posted by timothyjok February 17, 09 09:59 AM
  1. What is the big deal. They do not make the show for free. It is a business. Everybody is trying to find different way to promote itself, show and product. I bet would love if it would be mention.

    Posted by George February 17, 09 10:08 AM
  1. Advertisers are being forced to do this. With DVR and Tivo etc, most fast forward through commercials to sell their products. Now they incorporate the ad into the show and you HAVE to hear it/see it and it becomes useful to the advertisers.

    Posted by billy February 17, 09 10:11 AM
  1. Products are a part of our lives- why should they be ignored in TV land? BTW, I think McDonald's would not have greenlighted the McFlurry pitch. It plays it up as the dessert for the dumb and vacuous.

    Posted by Jed February 17, 09 10:13 AM
  1. Yeah I really don't see what the big deal is...

    Posted by melissa February 17, 09 10:27 AM
  1. "We were actually a little worried they might sue us"? Yeah, McRight.

    I watched the episode in question last week. For Fey to claim that this was not deliberate, paid product placement is laughable -- the McDonald's products were at the center of two scenes, the actors mentioned a certain product by name repeatedly, the product was constantly in the hands of the actors with the McDonald's logo showing, and one of the shoots apparently took place inside a McDonald's restaurant.

    Posted by Ian Lamont February 17, 09 10:28 AM
  1. Products are part of our pop-culture, so why shouldn't they be in TV shows? I actually think it makes things more real. And just because someone on 30 Rock eats a McFlurry, that doesn't mean I'm gonna run out and buy one.

    Posted by kala February 17, 09 10:38 AM
  1. I have no problem with this. They need to make money. I skip commercials all the time now. Just as long as they make it in the flow of the show, not like the spoof they did in Wayne's world.

    That said I think 30 rock wasn't actually product placement because of the up frontness used in talking about the mcflurry. Add in the fact that it was humorous that such a well-to-do "proper" man loved the seemignly simple product of mcflurry than this looks less like placement.

    Posted by Doug February 17, 09 10:49 AM
  1. Have you read any novels lately? There are brand name products mentioned all over the place. It's not just on television. And I think it bothers me just a little bit more when I see it in a book.

    Posted by Brenda February 17, 09 10:49 AM
  1. "Hawaii Five-O" always had shots of Diamond Head and the beaches of Oahu. Do you think that might have product placement by the Hawaii Tourism Council? And the Seaview submarine on "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" once was entangled in the tentacles of a giant squid. Perhaps that was product placement by the seafood industry. And don't forget that in "Animal House" the guys ordered a "rock-and-rye and seven Carlings" -- perhaps blatant product placement by Carling Black Label beer.

    Posted by Richard February 17, 09 10:59 AM
  1. I'm more concerned that you watch 30 Rock in the first place.....

    Posted by dave February 17, 09 11:03 AM
  1. First, I'll concede that I'm in that category of people that advertisers will NEVER get to no matter how hard or in what way they attempt to. At least I like to think so - I'm sure someone reading this could supply an example that counters my belief.

    That being said, when the characters from 30 Rock all start eating McDonalds, or the fact that the lead character in The Office drives a Chrysler...I'm not going to change my consumer habits to imitate some character from a television program. Sort of like what #6 said, I see those details as rounding out the development of a character. They use product X for whatever reason; I prefer product Y. Simple.

    Posted by RF February 17, 09 11:04 AM
  1. 30 Rock's promo's ("Can I have my money now?") have never been too funny, but I loved the Burger King references on Arrested Development - damn, I miss that show

    Posted by Harri February 17, 09 11:08 AM
  1. Man, I could use a McFlurry right about now...

    Posted by Dave February 17, 09 11:27 AM
  1. Patsy hit the nail on the head. It wasn't a paid promo, they used the McFlurry as a punchline.

    Posted by Noel February 17, 09 12:15 PM
  1. Is the "McFlurry" a real McDonalds product?

    Posted by RJ February 17, 09 12:53 PM
  1. I think the word "McFlurry" sounds funny, and that's why they used it. Whether they got paid or not, I don't know. If they did get paid, hopefully it will keep my favorite show on the air for that much longer. More power to them...

    Posted by Carver February 17, 09 02:53 PM

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