Commentary

Brandtique: 'Top Chef' Advertisers

Early in this season's "Top Chef," a judge tells would-be Lagasses to look at a plate like a blank canvas. The same approach goes for Madison Avenue dealmakers looking to integrate their products in the Bravo series. Get ready to capitalize on the network seemingly placing every piece of real estate up for sale.

As a result, much of the product placement in the show's current second season seems overcooked--often as out of place as veal parm at Nobu.

Is there any reason that a series about contestants battling to roast one another in a culinary competition needs to show them driving to the market? Shopping for groceries, sure--but the travel? The reason: Toyota wanted to showcase its SUVs, which appear in virtually every episode and often receive close-ups that are as prominent as the tartare.

And Aquafina? The distinctive blue bottles are comically omnipresent. So much so that the marketer is at risk of inflicting product-placement fatigue--the reaction that occurs when a product is so ubiquitous that the viewer ceases to notice. In fact, a close observer might wonder if there are any scenes without the water bottles in the shot.

A third highly noticeable brand is less over the top: Sears' Kenmore appliances.

They are present throughout the "Kenmore Pro Kitchen," where the contestants prep the bouillabaisse, crunchy anchovies, etc. They run to the refrigerators and use the ovens and stoves as they frantically try to hit deadlines. During "Top Chef" season one's run, a top Sears official touted the brand integration as a big success. That may be too bullish, but at least the marketer studied the show's concept and looked for a way to get involved, unlike Toyota or Aquafina, which seems to have gone in the opposite direction.

On the show, the "Kenmore Pro Kitchen" serves as a branded part of the set, loosely akin to "American Idol's" Coca-Cola Red Room. Question: How creative are producers of reality shows these days? More and more, they snag concepts from other shows and adopt them with just a slight twist. "Top Chef" is a prime example.

In addition to the possibly "Idol"-inspired Kenmore setting, the show also features elimination challenges with "immunity" at stake. Here, it's not just the concept, but the term "immunity"--which comes straight from "Survivor." And then there's almost outright larceny: Donald Trump's simple-but-unforgettable catchphrase--"You're Fired"--seems sharp. "Top Chef" failed to sharpen its own wit. Padma Lakshmi just asks the losers to "Please pack your knives and go."

Of course, on the topic of product placement, "The Apprentice" has been roundly criticized for turning itself into that blank canvas for product placement, much like "Top Chef." But while the benefits to Toyota, Aquafina and even Kenmore in the Bravo show are questionable, the series offers a paradigm for how branded entertainment can provide the marketing equivalent of a filet mignon at New York's famed Peter Luger Steak House.

For instance, as the contestants receive their marching orders for the elimination challenges on "Top Chef," they consistently head to Wild Oats Market to select their provisions. And it provides the second-largest U.S. organic and natural foods grocer a chance for organic integration

As the chefs dash around the market in each episode, it's clear that whatever they need can all be found at Wild Oats. Interior shots show delectably overflowing vegetable and fruit selections. The cheese aisle seems unending. The fish counter picture-perfect. And the staff goes overboard to help.

And despite the appealing bounty, Wild Oats doesn't come off as overpriced, since the contestants are often given a budget. Take that, Whole Foods. Often, contestants are even seen carrying their Wild Oats bags into the kitchen as they begin their creating, which serves to reinforce the store's role in their artistry.

Compliments to the chef--er, marketer--are also in order for another advertiser that positioned itself into the show.

On the Jan. 10 episode, Kraft weaved its way in as decidedly non-gastronomic products were used in the oxymoronic "Kraft Gourmet Snack Challenge." Chefs had to conceive and prepare a "delicious" high-falutin' snack using either Kraft's "Mayo," "Zesty Italian Dressing" or barbecue sauce. But the ploy worked. It was one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX.

A famous ad once showed that Folgers coffee could be used in the world's finest restaurants. Who knew Kraft barbecue sauce had a shot? A contestant used it to make an enticing tempura shrimp. Another came up with lamb kebab using mayonnaise.

No run-of-the-mill snacks there. And that's at the heart of Kraft's strategy with the integration, since Bravo tends to draw a considerable audience of upscale women. Sales of the products have likely reached a plateau, and Kraft is looking to reenergize them by inspiring foodies to be crafty with them. (Potential tagline: "Be Krafty").

Kraft deserves credit for its well-conceived goal and executing it. And for its restraint in not overexposing its products.

In an earlier episode this season, the contestants were asked to create dishes inspired by the seven deadly sins. It appears that some "Top Chef" marketers may be guilty of product placement gluttony.

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