Broadcast networks are touchy about brand realism on fictional shows -- especially when they don't know about it ahead of time.
CBS says it has a rule about product placement -- it will disclose what financial interests are involved when a brand's name is mentioned or seen. But not every network does this.
So this week on "Two and a Half Men," when Ashton Kutcher's new Internet billionaire character, Walden Schmidt opened his laptop, lo and behold we saw some stickers of real-life companies including FourSquare, Groupon, Chegg and Flipboard.
"Men" executive producer Chuck Lorre thought this was OK -- even though CBS executives supposedly knew nothing about it. For a producer's mindset it makes sense: Realistic computer brands add some credibility. Right?
But there are complications -- seems that Kutcher has a financial interest (passive?) in those companies. No money was transferred (as far as we know) specifically for this product placement effort.
Seems that CBS will have none of it -- even if no money was exchanged specifically. It doesn't want other producers getting the wrong idea. At least it wants knowledge ahead of time.
In the old days, networks might just look the other way -- letting producers make a few bucks. (Going rate for a single network primetime product placement deal is around $300,000).
But then things got crazy. Early deals for Mark Burnett's original "The Apprentice" on NBC brought in up to $2 million for a single branded entertainment arrangement -- including product placement. Finally NBC had enough and created a revenue sharing arrangement with the show. CBS later did the same with Burnett's "Survivor."
Product placement deals can go way over the top -- just look at slightly longer video takes for car brands on some USA Network dramas. Reality shows always seem to have better crediblility with product placements, as real-life competitions seem a naturally-sponsored better fit.
Certainly it seems weird when, on say NBC's "Parenthood," someone drinks beer and all it says on the can is "Beer." That's distracting in another way.
Kutcher's millionaire computer character? Surely, any savvy Internet entrepreneur and investor would have assorted investments in new and different companies.
Then again, given the variety and plethora of cool Internet brand names almost anything goes. Who is to know what's what? Laptop stickers with pseudo names like "SludgeHappy," or "FurMaven" or "PencilFencers" would have worked just as well.