Branded: Time to Sing 'Sopranos'

The producers of HBO's "The Sopranos," like their creation Tony Soprano, are in denial. They still refuse to admit that they are intentionally padding their program with product messages, even as the premiere episode of the sixth and perhaps final season of the Mob soap featured an in-your-face full-screen of a Nestlé's Nesquik logo (the camera actually stopped and lingered on the brand before tracking away), several unsubtle shots of a FedEx package, and a fawning integration (not just a placement, an integration!) of a brand new Porsche Cayenne Turbo as bold and shameless as the fabled integration of a Buick LaCrosse in an episode of ABC's "Desperate Housewives."

The producers of "Housewives" may or may not be as neurotic as their characters, but they aren't hypocrites. The LaCrosse integration was bookended with :30 spots for the car and was lauded by the industry press. No one complained.

HBO is commercial-free, so it can't carry spots for the Porsche or the David Yurman watch ("18 karat gold, diamond center") that also made a conspicuous appearance in the episode. But HBO did air denials in the press that any money changed hands between the producers and marketers featured in the premiere. The agencies representing these brands also denied everything.

Last year, Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star Ledger, alleged that the series was "larded with paid product placement for dozens of companies, including Coca-Cola, Crunch Fitness, Mercedes, Cadillac, Home Depot, Brookstone, StarTac phones, and even Raid pesticide (squirted into Tony Soprano's eyes during a fight with rival Ralphie Cifaretto)."

This time around, an HBO spokeswoman contacted by several publications not only denied that advertisers paid for placement, she also denied what was painfully obvious -- that Tony Soprano and his mob were plugging brands at all.

"We feel that since we are advertiser-free, from a philosophical point, product placement is another form of advertising, and we do not do it," the unnamed flack informed The Chicago Tribune. That sounds like John Gotti loudly insisting: "There is no such thing as the Mafia!"

Meanwhile, Tony Soprano's wife Carmela, who received the Cayenne as a gift in the season premiere, gushed repeatedly over the sheet metal. "It's got a 4.5 liter V8," said Tony proudly. "Oh my God, it's gorgeous," squealed Carmela. "Oh my God, what a car!"

Later, a friend of Carmela also was smitten. "Is that new?" she cried out. "Yes, Porsche Cayenne, like the pepper," said Carmela. "It's beautiful, Carm."

In the episode, Carmela's behavior gave shape to her developing persona as an otherwise intelligent woman caving to materialism, selling her soul to the devil. Apparently the producers obtained the car as a helpful $90,000 prop for free from Porsche; in return HBO also obviously agreed to the carmaker's request that the luxe auto's praises be written into the script. That's what we call deliverables -- a normal part of the product placement business. In other words, selling yourself to the devil.

Tony Soprano and his Mob associates take the sacred oath of omerta or silence in order to shield la cosa nostra ("this thing of ours") from public scrutiny. HBO likewise is observing its own version of omerta. It refuses to cop to the fact that it leads a double life as a subscriber-based entertainment network that happens to also do a few advertising side deals. But unlike Tony's bad behavior, that's not illegal or anything to be embarrassed about.

HBO's competition, Showtime, isn't in denial. In fact, it came out of the closet. Subaru's Forester appeared regularly in their hit show "The L Word" in a storyline involving a closeted lesbian pro-tennis player who is approached by the carmaker for an endorsement role.

"This is art imitating life," said a network exec at the time about the integration. "We are the pioneers in this segment. We're hoping to do more of this in the future."

"The Sopranos" is also a pioneer -- a brilliant example of what a true collaboration between Madison Ave. and Hollywood can accomplish. Brands appear in the show without corrupting the integrity of the drama. They add to the verisimilitude and help trigger character traits (and flaws) and plot points. In other words, they get some bada bang for their bucks. It's a shame the network and the producers treat this as if it's a crime. It's not.

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

Next story loading loading..