Shameless Product Placement or Quest For Authenticity?

August 16, 2010

HBO is back in the cable package at the Broberg home and I’ve spent the last few nights catching up on the current season of “Entourage.”  It’s still a light, entertaining show even though you have to sit through some bad acting from the countless celebrities making cameos (like Adrian Peterson at a high-end auction looking to sell a rare dinosaur head). As George Fiddler wrote a week or so ago, it also seems like the product placement is at an all-time high. Not only is a main plotline developing around Avion tequila, a real brand recently launched in NYC and LA, but viewers are consistently bombarded with Budweiser, Blackberry, Johnny Walker, Diet Coke and several other products (and that was just one episode). But HBO has always claimed to be an advertising-free network, so what gives?

According to a recent article in the New York Post, neither HBO or “Entourage” is making any money from the many products featured in the series. The show’s creator, Doug Ellin, claims he uses real products for the sake of authenticity. Makes sense, I guess – real life is obviously filled with real brands everywhere we turn.

As a marketer, I’ve become accustomed to spotting product placement and judging how seamlessly or how ridiculously the brand was integrated into the program. But, it jumps out at me just as much when characters are using generic brands. In fact, it seems kind of silly to see someone sipping on a red can labeled “cola.”

So, how did Avion get lucky enough to be the hot new premium tequila written into the series? Turns out the founder of Avion has been buddies with Ellin for more than 30 years, so it was a natural fit when the story called for a start-up business.

All the free publicity does come with a price, though. If you don’t pay, you don’t have any creative control. Ellin told his friend he’d love to feature his tequila on the show, but also emphasized that he’d have no say in how it was used.

I’m certain Ellin has no intention of damaging the brand of a life-long friend, but the lead character in “Entourage” appears headed to a dark place in his life and the bottles of Avion tequila he’s consuming are certainly a contributing factor. We’ll see how it all plays out.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to watch Avion’s marketing team and see if they can capitalize on the opportunity – particularly since a majority of the show’s viewers probably have no idea it is real.  

What do you think? Is it more authentic to see real brands in the programs you watch or does the likelihood that the product integration is paid for turn you off?