So far this season, the brilliantly-written, often-hilarious Showtime dramedy has featured Diet Coke, Nokia, Chevy, Lexus and Puma - all seamlessly and believably planted into the story of a pot-dealing housewife trying to turn a utopian SoCal exurb into her personal Amsterdam.
The over-the-top, sardonic content isn't just fertile ground for blue chips. When it comes to natural integration, it's hard to compete with High Times magazine. Talk about endemics. The bakers' book had its moniker all over one hysterical scene in episode two, where main character Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) and her partners in dime (bags) visit what amounts to an industry convention (think Cannabis Growers of America) to search for the ideal strain to grow. It's fiction, then again it is California...
Also in the second episode - amid all the sidesplitting laughs from the high times of the zany characters played superbly by Kevin Nealon (way better than he ever was on "SNL") and Justin Kirk (an unheralded gem) - a sober storyline begins to emerge.
Distraught that his girlfriend has chosen to go cross-country to attend college, Nancy's son Silas unwraps a pinpoint plan to keep her nearby. At first in the Aug. 28 episode, there truly is a lot of unwrapping - condom after condom after condom - as the two teens engage in a prodigious string of sexcapades. The condoms are all unmistakably Trojans - the camera shows a close-up of the box, followed by a rapid-fire montage of Silas tearing open one wrapper after another (one of the top-ranked product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX).
It's a lot of sex and a lot of condoms, but it all appears to be a nice subtle message from Trojan, in part, about the importance of safe sex. Then, however, comes a cringe-inducing scene. Silas sticks a safety pin in one of the Trojans.
And that sets off a string of traumatic events that unwisely takes the show on a long strange trip away from its lifeblood. Teenage pregnancy and, later, assaulting a kid form a pretty big buzzkill. (Memo to the writers: Stick to mocking the burnouts and bongs next door).
The pregnant girlfriend has an abortion and her parents forbid her to speak to Silas. Despondent, he breaks a window in her home desperate to speak with her. The angry father intervenes. But Silas fights back, stabbing him with a piece of broken glass. The father then retaliates, hitting Silas.
Silas' mom then drives up to find a sobbing Silas with a bloody face. She argues with the father, then pushes him angrily.
The whole thing, from the pin in condom to the father attacking Silas to a mother finding her tearful son with seemingly nowhere to turn, is heartrending. Again, way too far afield from Nealon's character wigging out in a tie dye or Kirk's going through rabbinical school to avoid military service.
And it begs the question why would Trojan, a company that obviously takes safe sex seriously but employs a tongue-in-cheek approach in its marketing (Trojan Man...echo...echo...) involve itself in such a downer of a storyline?
The back-story provides an intriguing answer, and one that shows how sophisticated the strategy behind product placement has become. In this case, Trojan executives felt they could turn the downer into a winner.
Like HBO, Showtime allegedly does not traffic in paid product placement, but it offers marketers the chance to insert brands in shows if the content allows a natural fit. Showtime benefits as well since the brands can add verisimilitude.
When the show-runners on "Weeds" concocted the storyline of Silas tampering with the condom, they approached Trojan's branded entertainment reps, AIM Productions, about using the brand.
On one level, it seems quizzical to allow the Trojan brand to be associated with a condom failing - albeit intentionally. But while carefully reviewing the issue, AIM and Trojan executives looked at it from another angle: If viewers would take away that Trojans were so effective that they only fail when someone takes a pin to one, then they could deliver a message of strength, reinforcing the brand positioning.
Patricia Ganguzza, president of AIM, said Trojan would never have taken that risky approach if the show had a heavy teenage audience such as "The O.C." or, years ago, "Dawson's Creek," where AIM placed Trojan multiple times (interestingly, networks only allowed prime-time ads for condoms last year, but allowed product placement for them for years before).
"We take Trojan very seriously, we consider it a public service representing Trojan," Ganguzza said. "We want people to percieve it in an appropriate way."
The Trojan/"Weeds" connection shows there's much more to it than reach and frequency.