Brandtique: Skyy

When a bottle of Skyy vodka made an appearance in the season premiere of the HBO comedy "Entourage," the marketers behind the spirits brand had to be (and pardon the banal, overwrought pun) in great spirits.

It was hard not to notice the distinctive blue-hued bottle that may give Absolut's clear vessel a run for its money in terms of reflexive consumer recognition. Besides the couldn't-miss presence April 8, the "Entourage" audience no doubt dovetails with Skyy's target consumer. The brand positions itself as a high-end favorite of the glitterati, a fixture at film festival parties and the Gansevoort ultra-chic bar in the sky (Skyy?) in New York's Meatpacking District.

"Entourage," with its inside-baseball humor and esoteric story lines, has a particular appeal among the industry folks in L.A.--and those who know the length of Graydon Carter's hair. And the series gets that crowd talking. More broadly, it's on a premium channel, with an upscale profile and presumably trendsetting audience.



Classify the Skyy integration as one a media planner could use as the basis for a raise. It was brand exposure that unavoidably reached a sizable sector of the marketer's wheelhouse. Another plus: the integration (one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX) was a paradigm of what's known as organic product placement--industry lexicon for slotting a product into the flow of a show without a gaudy, overcooked presence that can turn viewers off.

Perhaps the biggest boon of all: Ostensibly, it didn't cost Skyy a cent, save the charge for FedEx-ing some bottles and other brand regalia to the producers.

In a neat twist, Skyy's appearance on "Entourage"--the series HBO is counting on to continue its "Sex and the City"-"Six Feet Under"-"Sopranos"-propelled momentum--meant weaving the brand into the story line, where it offered a satire of product placement itself.

Here's how it went down:

The hangers-on of lead character Vince Chase (Adrian Grenier) are planning his birthday bash, but are short on cash. One of the clingers, Turtle (Jerry Ferrara)--the lead dog on the planning--concocts the idea to get sponsors to foot the bill. "I got help from some friends," is the way he puts it, as Chase & Co. arrive at the event agog at the crowd size and panache.

One entourage member expresses frustration at the commercialism, as the camera offers a shot of a sign reading "Victoria's Secret wishes Vince a very sexy birthday."

Turtle's retort: "Hold off on your judgment 'til you see the whole thing." And it really is quite the affair, partly thanks to Skyy, which makes an appearance in the ensuing scenes. There's a shot of a Skyy-decorated bar and branded trays carried by servers in the background. But those are mere lead-ins to the crème de la crème: Vince--the super-hot Hollywood luminary, so hot he won't "sell out" and do endorsements--is holding a Skyy bottle for a flood of paparazzi.

Just as he preps to blow out his candles on a massive cake, Turtle says, "Whoa--don't blow anything out yet, mind holding this up while you do it?" Enter the distinctive blue bottle, as Vince flashes his million-dollar smile while displaying it excitedly.

If Skyy were to pay for the product-placement windfall, the price would no doubt be (pun coming) sky-high. But if HBO is to be believed, Skyy got it gratis. The commercial-free network claims it accepts no money for brand insertions, product placement or any in-show commercialism. "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," an HBO rep reportedly told The Chicago Tribune.

HBO produces some of the best programming ever, and does product placement pretty well, too. Nike, for one, received a nice, organic plug in a previous "Entourage" season. In addition, "The Sopranos" has offered up Nissan SUVs, Tropicana containers and other brands over its run. In fact, on a recent "Sopranos" episode, the script even mentioned a Skyy competitor with one of the characters telling Tony (James Gandolfini) he's scored a stash of the premium Imperial brand for him.

About the only downside for Skyy had absolutely nothing to do with the company.

"Entourage" seems to be lacking, to borrow a phrase from another HBO hit, some zsa-zsa-zou this season. While the writing remains crisp and witty, the dramatic fulcrums are ho-hum. Thus far, the only notable one being whether Vince will return to the agent (played by show-stopper Jeremy Piven) he dismissed last season. But top comedies such as "Friends" have dipped before in the middle of their run, only to make strong recoveries.

There have also been complaints about HBO's scheduling of the half-hour comedy. While it's understandable that the network wants to use the lead-in from "The Sopranos" at 9 p.m. to drive viewers to "Entourage" at 10, it's frustratingly incongruous. The lighthearted comedy simply doesn't work after the pulsating, weighty drama. "The Sopranos" takes time to digest; a slower-moving hour-long drama works better in its wake, instead of the 23 minutes of waggish "Entourage."

Of course, HBO on Demand allows devotees of both shows to watch them in any order and time they choose--and as often as they please.

It's likely the Skyy marketing team is taking advantage. But for another reason--to view its close-up again and again.

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