A while back I read a story about the spread of product placement advertisement in TV shows. Product placement is the practice of slipping visuals of branded goods such as foods, beer, autos, etc., into programs and charging the makers a fee, much as if they were running regular paid ads. This has been going on for a long time in films.
For example, there’s a scene in my favorite movie, Superman, where a young Clark Kent is eating breakfast in his family’s farmhouse with a box of Cheerios clearly visible on the kitchen table. Ever since I watched that scene, I’ve eaten Cheerios for breakfast every day of my life. I still can’t fly, but I haven’t given up hope yet.
There are several reasons why sneaked-in ads are now cropping up on television: partly it’s because audiences are turned off by all the commercials cluttering the airwaves; partly because new electronic technology will let viewers zip right past them; but mostly it’s due to simple greed. Not only will more and more branded items appear in new programs, they will also pop up in rerun programs as TV producers take classic old shows and digitally insert commercial products.
So don’t be surprised if you see Jack Webb with a Nokia cell phone in a 1954 Dragnet episode, or Lucille Ball, in an I Love Lucy show filmed nearly 50 years ago, checking her AOL e-mail on a Toshiba laptop.
Reading about this insidious practice really upset me. As an ethical journalist, I oppose any compromise of media integrity. For example, I used to stew every time I saw ads for crappola movies that invariably featured gushing quotes from a certain critic for a minor radio station. When I read that he sometimes wrote rave reviews without even bothering to see the films and was rewarded with lavish junkets for his favorable reviews, I sent him increasingly annoying e-mails. Not long after, I heard about his death and wondered if my harassment contributed to his demise. Oh, well.
Anyway, as I said, because of my journalistic morals I was repelled by the inherent dishonesty of blatant product placement on television. That is, until I began to wonder if I couldn’t pick up a little extra dough myself for plugging things in my column.
I realize this sounds tacky, but please consider my circumstances. The magazine remuneration I receive for my Pulitizer Prize-level writing does not exactly place me in the top tax bracket. Let’s be honest, it doesn’t even get me into the the poverty-level bracket. While it’s true that I make a handsome living from my poker playing, I also have heavy expenses, mainly for my charitable contributions to railbirds.
So I cast around for products and places that could benefit from a mention in my column. Deciding that the Barstow Card Casino was the place most in needed of good publicity, I sounded out Big Denny. What could he offer, I asked, in return for a nice mention?
“I kin give ya a comp ta our four-star buffet,” he replied. “I got a good deal on some cows dat died from somet’in dey ain’t figgered out what it wuz yet, but it probably ain’t nuthin’ catchin’.”
I thanked Big Denny profusely and promised to consider his offer. Next I contacted my good UFA friend Lou Krieger. What could I expect to get, I asked, if I wrote that reading his books made me the player I am today? His answer was terse: “A letter from my attorney.”
Wise guy. I never saw him listed in the Overall Player Rankings in the back of poker magazines like I once was. Perhaps a touch of humor would do the trick, I thought. So I made up a poker joke (OK, I stole it from Reader’s Digest and changed it a little, what’s the difference)? It went like this:
The first time I met my sweetie, she asked me to drive her from Commerce to the Bicycle Casino. As we drove, I placed my hand on her knee. “You can go farther if you like,” she said coyly. So I drove her to Hollywood Park.
I tried peddling the joke to the three casinos by asking Nancy Friedman at Commerce, Kelley O’Hara at the Bike and Phyllis Caro at Hollywood Park what they would do if I promoted them that way. All of them said they would pull their magazine advertising.
Even Oklahoma Johnny Hale, who would do anything to promote his book, up to and including dropping his pants and hanging upside down from the Stratosphere tower, wasn’t interested.
In fact, the only nibbles I got were from Ralph the Rattler, looking for a plug for his home poker game for kiddies, and from a sleazy character peddling a book on how to mark cards. I indignantly turned them both down when they wouldn’t pay me up front.
Ah, well, perhaps it was for the best that my scheme misfired. After all, the last thing in the world I would want to do would be to divert ad dollars from poker magazines into my pocket.