Column: Branded -- You Talkin' To Me?

"Wet my beak" is mafia-speak for "cut me my share." It's usually uttered with a sly forefinger wipe of the nose, for emphasis. That's basically what the unhappy members of the Writers Guild of America West are doing when they protest product placement in TV programming. They pat their proboscis while whining about how their favorite reality programs are being turned into infomercials by the intrusion of brands in plot lines.

What they really want is a piece of the action.

Check it out on their Web site, "We're the ones forced to put in long hours just to figure out how we're going to embed that can of soda into the storyline eight more times before the final episode." And this: "Embedding advertisements into reality TV shows is not always easy or seamless. Reality editors and writers put in long hours trying to figure out how to make a Chevy SSR blend naturally into a deserted desert island."

Although our hearts bleed for these poor, overworked wretches, we must ask them: Hey, dudes, you wanna trade jobs? We'll take your glam gig anytime. It beats working in the mines. Heck, according to Jethro Bodine, you guys in Hollywood (and Beverly Hills) are awash in "swimming pools and movie stars."

Seriously, now. Some people out West think product placement is a Madison Avenue version of a gold rush, with marketers digging up cartloads of cash just to place a bar of soap in a soap opera. And who can blame them? What with Mark Burnett reportedly getting some $2.5 million-plus per integration on broadcast TV, and with the media research outfit PQ Media claiming that product placement in all media was a $4.2 billion business in 2005, it sure does smell like big business.

Take a closer whiff of PQ's study and you'll find that more than 75 percent of those reported billions are not dollars changing hands for product placement deals per se but dollars paid for ad inventory sweetened with added-value -- read "free" -- integrations. As for Mr. Burnett, yes, he has been getting top dollar for his integrations, although his prices could drop following sizable ratings dips for "The Apprentice" starring The Donald and the cancellation of the Martha model, as well as the move of his boxing series "The Contender" from pricey prime-time to cable. At the moment Mr. Burnett is the exception, not the norm.

We hate to break it to you writer dudes, but right now most product placement and brand integration is a part of doing business as usual -- a media buy. Writing a soda brand into a script should be considered the same thing: a part of doing business. Face it, embedding a soda can in an episode of "The Simple Life" isn't any more difficult than, say, writing a part in that show for Cher, blending her naturally into the barnyard.

Speaking of barnyards, we walked the floor of the National Association of Television Program Executives conference in Vegas in January, and the sales booths were filled with squawking about integrating brands in daytime syndication. Sony's Greg Behrendt, Kingworld's Rachael Ray, and NBC Universal's Megan Mullally, among others, pimped themselves and their new shows out to brands. Meanwhile, big-time feature film production companies discreetly sold themselves and their children to soda pop makers and hamburger chains in flashy suites at Mandalay Bay.

As far as these celebs, machers, and their companies were concerned, what happens in Vegas must not stay in Vegas. The cost of production and the failure rate of syndicated programs are both so high that they need to bed a few marketing partners and bring them back home to meet the parents.

The best pitch of the conference was from Mr. Behrendt, a stand-up comic, frequent guest on "Oprah," and coauthor of the bestseller He's Just Not That Into You.

"Oprah is the queen," he said, wagging his trademark product-tamed plumage in front of a group of media buyers. "Dr. Phil is your father. Ellen is your sister. And I'm gonna be like your brother."

Does that make Tony Danza our cousin?

Hank Kim and Richard Linnett are directors at MPG Entertainment. ( and

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