Category Archives: Axel

“Breaking Bad” Product Integration

I’m about to make a confession that might draw some gasps from the audience: I don’t watch that much TV. Oops. My method of watching usually revolves around finding a well-established show I’ve never seen before, digging up all the existing seasons on DVD or the Internet, and ravenously consuming it all in the space of a few weeks. Anxiously waiting a week or more for the next episode to resolve a cliffhanger? Not my style. Anyway, at this moment that show is Breaking Bad, which I can’t praise enough for its visceral acting and nerve-fraying tension. I was surprised, then, when early into season 4 a clever example of product integration almost slipped past me. The key word here is “integration,” due to the relevance of the product to the screenplay/plot. It was done in such a way that it could be justified without betraying loftier artistic goals. If you have yet to see season 4 of Breaking Bad, or plan to at some point in the future, you might want to stop reading immediately. Spoiler alert!

At the end of season 3, Jesse Pinkman, the troubled hero of the show, is forced to kill a man at point-blank range. The first several episodes of season 4 deal with his post-traumatic, progressive unhinging into spiritual death. In two episodes, he is seen playing a violent first-person shooter video game, gunning down hordes of bloodied zombies or crazy, lunatic human beings, while suffering flashbacks of his real-life murder. After seeing this video game on the show (I’m not much of gamer either), I looked it up online and discovered that it was a real game called Rage, which could easily be bought in Amazon or a thousand other places. It is an unusual, but interesting, form of product placement, since there isn’t much positive value attributed to it as framed by the narrative of Breaking Bad. Sure, the graphics and gameplay look attractive enough, but in the context of the show, Rage only furthers the progressive disintegration of Jesse Pinkman’s sanity.

If any doubts remain that this is an example of product placement, then this next video should dispel them:

The easter egg reference to Breaking Bad very clearly reveals a mutual agreement between the two parties, one which surely yielded profitable results for both of them.

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Product branding in the UK

In the U.S. of A., product placement is a fact of life. This blog should be a testament to that. It might come as a surprise, then, to find out that in the United Kingdom there are restrictions to this marketing strategy. However, last February the UK’s media regulator, Ofcom, released its vice-like ethical grip on surreptitious advertising, and slowly but surely opened the door for product placement. In the past few months branded products started popping up on weekend and daytime shows, while the grandaddy of them all lurked around the corner–prime time. With the inclusion of product placement in the soap opera Coronation Street (which I’ve never heard of), that has now changed. Apparently the soap ” will feature a branded ATM in the street’s fictional corner shop,” according to Not the flashiest of products, I must say, but how wonderfully appropriate to launch a new era of advertising than with a cash machine! Perhaps executives felt it was better to kick off with something that accurately represented their interests.

Doing a little bit of research on Ofcom’s website I found some interesting information. From the FAQ section on product placement:

How can products be placed?

There must be ‘editorial justification’ for a product to be placed in a programme.

That means the product must be relevant to what the programme is about. The content of programmes shouldn’t seem to be created or distorted, just to feature the placed products.

Programmes also can’t promote placed products or give them too much prominence. So there shouldn’t be any claims made about how good a placed product is, or so many references to a product that it feels like it is being promoted.

Editorial justification you say? Ha, I’d like to see how that flies in the U.S. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of restriction of the sort in this country. See this Days of our Lives clip for evidence. Check this next question out:

How will I know if a programme contains product placement?

If a UK programme contains product placement, the TV channel has to show a special logo. This will let viewers know that the TV channel or the programme-maker has been paid to include products in that programme. The logo is pictured below – there are two versions so that it can be used on a light or dark background.

Can you imagine this happening in American television? Unthinkable! Spending a couple of hours watching TV can jade even the most innocent of viewers, so I think it’s a very nice and sweet touch that UK programmers go to the trouble of letting the audience know they’re being swindled. Two thumbs up for Ofcom!

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Verisimilitude vs. profit motives

Product placement is a widening practice. A NY Times article published recently talks about a new Spanish-speaking scripted series on ESPN Deportes, notable both for the fact that it is on ESPN and because it will be heavily integrated with products–something unusual for shows geared towards the Latin American market. However, what caught my attention in the article was the following excerpt:

Another benefit is “realism,” he [Juan Alfonso, vice president for international marketing and program development at ESPN International in Los Angeles] added, in that the appearances of actual brands “add authenticity” to the story about the young player, Chava, portrayed by Alfonso Herrera, an actor who was a member of a popular Mexican pop band, RBD.

The team for which Chava plays is fictitious, “but everything surrounding it is real,” Mr. Alfonso said, to build viewer interest in the tale of “big-time professional soccer in Mexico.”

“We didn’t want to have on a uniform the logo of a brand that doesn’t exist in Mexico,” he added. “It would kill the realism.”

Is “realism” a reasonable justification for product placement? Is it not possible to create a fully believable world without the use of recognizable brands? Has our reality become so inextricably permeated with brands that if we’re presented with a scenario devoid of them, we cannot connect with the characters or the story? This, to me, is what the producers are saying. To a certain extent I can buy into this premise, but it just seems so goddamn sad.

Kleenex = tissue, tissue = Kleenex

At some point in time we started calling a tissue a “Kleenex”, to search on the Internet “to Google something”, etc, etc. When corporations sink their teeth into the colloquial lexicon, that’s when we know there’s no turning back. Anyhow…my opinion is that Mr. Juan Alfonso drank the Kool-Aid (Oh man, I’m so clever) because his job depends on it. And that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean we should buy into it as well.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Product placement is, for the most part, a generally accepted fixture of most television shows and movies released nowadays. But only when it is seamless. We see a character casually pulling a Coke or a Heineken out of the fridge, and, unless it’s done in a particularly egregious manner (such as a close-up shot of the ice-cold beverage held for a second too long), we are unfazed, or, not particularly offended. Bad product placement, however, is an entirely different animal. You can tell you’re in the presence of bad product placement when film characters start expounding on the virtues of product X, in such a way that you’re thinking, “And how, exactly, is this relevant to the plot?”. And in that moment, we, as seasoned viewers, feel a certain superiority in having seen through the farce, thereby confirming our self-delusional belief that we are immune to advertising. So then again, bad product placement might not be that bad after all.

One episode of the Colbert Report pointed out some laughably obvious examples culled from the soap opera “Days of our Lives” (link is attached below). Cue the close-up shots, the excessive praises, and the unnaturally long discussion involving whole-wheat Cheerios.

The problem here is that the dialogue is serving the product, and not the product serving the dialogue. There is virtually no distinction between this and a traditional 30-second spot for TV. The whole point of product placement is its subtlety/integration into the fictional world created by the filmmakers. Think of the Nokia phones in The Matrix. At the time I saw that movie I wasn’t old enough to be carrying a cellphone around (you probably can’t say the same about ten year-olds in 2011), but I knew I wanted one. It had the spring-loaded black cover and Neo used it to answer Morpheus’ calls. It was cool because it didn’t need to tell us that it was cool.

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Kids! Kids! Advertising for the littleuns

Starting in the 1970’s, following a favorable ruling from the FTC, advertising geared towards children became an enormous industry. The untapped market was suddenly unlocked and up for grabs. The prospect of creating relentless begging machines that would funnel parental income into the next, best, shiny, new toy was too much for the major corporations, and so it was that kids became a multi-billion dollar industry. This is the part where we insert the picture of the media executive with dollar signs:

Advertising towards kids is now EVERYWHERE. Even in the oh-s0-innocent Sponge Bob Squarepants backpacks and lunchboxes. Yes, ladies and gentlemen. That is full-on product placement all the way.

Look at that gap-toothed genial smile. See those wondrous blue peepers with hyper-dilated pupils (comment reserved on this last aspect). The ever-important detail of the three eyelashes. Who in their right mind could possibly resist the charm of this absorbent little creature? Certainly not the kids. And this is only one example, selected for its super visibility. There’s plenty others that we’ll show in this blog. Hang tight! The brainwashing machine will soon be exposed in all its deceptive glory. Side note: as a child, the word “brainwashing” always conjured up an image of a pink brain tumbling around, unaccompanied, in a sloshing washing machine.

Family Guy, appreciated in some circles for its social commentary, has referenced the widespread phenomenon of advertising towards children in one of its episodes. Here’s the clip:

Seth MacFarlane and his crew criticize the way advertisers create non-existent needs and gotta-have-it products through incessant advertising and marketing. Millions of dollars in research have provided corporations with the knowledge to perversely manipulate children’s desires, so that by the end of the commercial your Stewie equivalent is bursting with endorphins and associating ecstasy with Hasbro’s “Best Thing Ever”.
More to come.