Commentary

Netflix's 'House Of Cards' Raises Product Placement Stakes

When “House of Cards” returns for a third season on Feb. 27, keep an eagle eye out for loads of native advertising. The award-wining series, like all Netflix originals, claims to be commercial-free -- but “House of Cards” is certainly helping pay for its hefty production price-tag (Netflix reportedly shelled out  $100 million for the first two seasons) with liberal use of product placement.

Nobody -- neither Netflix execs, nor series creator Beau Willimon, nor any of the brands featured in the first two seasons -- is talking about this. Still, the ubiquitous placement of prominent brands, ranging from Apple to Stella Artois, is too blatant to claim “House of Cards” is really a commercial-free show.   

Still, most of the products on display are used in a relatively seamless manner.  Characters use iPhones, Macs and iPads. Dell computers also grace desktops.  BlackBerrys figure big, too, which makes sense, given that through season 2 of “House of Cards”  government employees still  used the beleaguered company's device in significant numbers.  It's also plausible that political operatives might plot and scheme over a cup of coffee in a D.C. Dunkin’ Donuts.

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And while it’s not a reach that Kevin Spacey's demonic Congressional power broker Francis Underwood would unwind at home by playing violent video games, I doubt he would announce his allegiance to the Sony PlayStation Vita he plays them on if money hadn't changed hands before the script was written.  Equally flat-footed is a point in a season 2 episode where two reporters chat, sipping bottles of Stella Artois (placed center screen), in a dialogue that does little to move the plot along.

Still, the most egregious example of product placement gone off the rails remains season 1’s episode 11, “Things Fall Apart,” when Spacey's Lady Macbethesque wife Claire, played to chilly perfection by Robin Wright  heads to New York to hook up with her bohemian photographer boyfriend played by Ben Daniels.  The on-again, off-again couple's scenes play like an infomercial for Canon's EOS 1 camera and the company's photo printers.  Canon equipment appears in season 2 as well, but it’s nowhere so obvious as in this episode, where the brand is as big a part of the story as Wright and Daniels. 

Don't get me wrong. I know that quality entertainment comes at a price.  One way or another, the audience will pay beyond the monthly subscription fee.  But certain forms of product placement are problematic.  Essential to the Netflix success blueprint s burnishing its identity, a la HBO and Showtime, as a place for premium, sophisticated programming.  Playing too fast and loose with product placement runs the risk of undercutting that platinum image.

So here's hoping “House of Cards” producers play a more delicate hand in placing product -- and likewise for other quality shows on “commercial-free” platforms. I will be watching. If you're watching, too, please comment below on what seems to be about selling versus what's simply helping tell the story.

8 comments about "Netflix's 'House Of Cards' Raises Product Placement Stakes".
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  1. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, January 16, 2015 at 11:18 a.m.

    Good one, Max! I've written about the blatant vaping and regular old cigarette "placements" before. Maybe Netflix isn't so commercial free after all?http://www.mediapost.com/publications/article/220376/house-of-cards-smoke-em-if-you-got-em.html

  2. J. Max Robins from Center for Communication, January 16, 2015 at 11:26 a.m.

    Thanks PJ! Sometimes it's seamless and other times it ain't.

  3. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, January 16, 2015 at 12:17 p.m.

    Netflix has been a visionary trail blazer with the SVOD model.
    Netflix is doing the same again with "native " advertising although the audience is smart they also know if you stuck no-name generic brand store fronts etc, it would look fake. It will be quality product placement versus quantity but hey, folks here are talking about it and the advertisers have taken notice. Where is counter punch from the major broadcast networks???

  4. Linda Healey from OnStage Enterprises, January 16, 2015 at 1:22 p.m.

    Proposal for a new series: The challenging world of product placement. How one woman defines the rich dramatic possibilities: shaping compelling scenes and interactions in any given show which will showcase the product she represents. The clueless opposition she faces. Her triumphs and the ways in which fruitful marriages between art and commerce can be achieved.

  5. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, January 16, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

    Gag! Your comment made me laugh so hard I'm almost choked on my Wonderful Pistachios! Luckily I was able to clear my throat with a refreshing swig of Bud Light Lime.

  6. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, January 16, 2015 at 1:52 p.m.

    This is clearly a case of putting the cart before the horse.

    There's a point in development when the set and costume designers can draw up a list of products that will make sense in each scene. That's when the producers can reach out to marketers of the appropriate products for placement. And Leonard's absolutely right: generic storefront signs are ridiculous.

    And there's no reason at all for any scene to be stilted to make sure the brand's visible. Especially a beer-drinking scene. About 10 years ago I wrote about a doc-style commercial for Kraft (JWT-Chicago, I think) that showed a housewife unbagging groceries onto the kitchen counter. No problem that some of the products were upside down!

    This is the kind of routine stupidity that happens when marketers get wrapped up in their own agenda and allow that agenda to drift away from the customer. To paraphrase something David Ogilvy once felt it necessary to say: "The American housewife is not an idiot. She is your wife."

  7. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, January 16, 2015 at 1:54 p.m.

    Just to clarify: the routine stupidity is a stilted beer-drinking scene, NOT the Kraft commercial I referred to. Ah, pronoun antecedents.

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 16, 2015 at 2:39 p.m.

    Like a zombie, I watch the People's Choice Awards. Who's people and who voted is for another topic. However, it was one big depository for ad placements as in gag me with a spoon.

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