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.
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.