Everybody still raves about Netflix’s hit “House of Cards” but I would bet that among its most ardent fans are the makers of e-cigarettes, followed very closely by the makers of the regular kind that are stuffed with tobacco and burn and haven’t been allowed to advertise on TV since 1970.
Both have been featured prominently in the series about venal Rep. Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his conniving partner-in-crime wife, Claire (Robin Wright). The series has not only been lauded on its own, but seems to be the symbol of What Streaming Video Can Become for the industry.
Yet, the cigarette thing is just the (filtered) tip of the story. “House of Cards” is a product placement home run, for, among others, Dunkin’ Donuts, Playstation gaming consoles and Cadillacs.
Maybe this, too, is native advertising?
In the first season, Frank and Claire routinely ended their days and nights of manipulating the Washington power scene by sucking on a cigarette and blowing the exhaust out of a romantic side window at their home. The soft lit scenes made smoking look mighty good, and just the most natural thing to do after sticking knives into backs all day long.
This season, Frank began puffing on e-cigarettes. “It’s vapor,” he explains to his wife. “Addiction without the consequences.” Eventually, she joins him.
This season, in episode four (atmospheric spoiler-alert here) Claire and Frank are smoking an e-cig, and after she exhales, she sighs, “I wish I had the real thing right now.” At that, her husband unveils one he’s hidden under the base of a lamp, and fires it up. She inhales, then exhales a plume of smoke and says stinky breathily, “I missed this.” He purrs in response, “So have I.”
For steel-willed power brokers, these two have sure have met their match in nicotine delivery systems. Smoking on screen is nothing new, but these scenes are downright rapturous. Smoking is the key reason for the scene. They're not driving...and smoking, or arguing...and smoking. These are their smoking scenes.
The e-cigarette introduction into the plot has been duly noted by Liz Halloran, writing a blog for NPR.org.
“A Washington-based drama with an implicit endorsement of "vaping" – the practice of partaking in nicotine without burning tobacco?” she asks. “It could have been ripped directly from the playbook of lobbyists working Capitol Hill and Washington regulators on behalf of the estimated $1.7 billion-and-growing e-cigarette industry.”
Of course, the e-cigarette lobbyist denied it had anything to do with those scenes in “House of Cards” and the agency that does product placement for “House of Cards” doesn’t talk about what it’s placed, apparently. But the timing is perfect. Lobbyists are worried about how the feds will regulate e-cigs. The industry contends it can help smokers stop.
I suspect the “House of Cards” version of events is something near the truth. Vaping lets cigarette smokers quit-- except for the times that they haven’t. Product placement of both kinds of smoking works both ways, regardless of how it got there.
“The true hallmark of a stable relationship is cigarettes,” the Los Angeles Times wrote, tongue-in cheek, during the first season. “Of course, all relationships have their ups and downs. But that’s nothing sharing a nightly cigarette together out your bay window won’t fix.”
It’s not like “House of Cards” is alone in the cigarette-smoking business. In fact, its apparent rival, HBO, has been having its own butt Olympics with “True Detective,” and, I’ve got to say, Matthew McConaughey makes chain smoking look good. But that series isn’t the signature piece for HBO. “House of Cards” has that status for Netflix and the online video business beyond. That's not anything to celebrate.