Mad Men fans let out a collective groan last week when news hit that an extension of the show was at risk because AMC, its cable network home, was fighting with the show's creator, Matthew Weiner, over terms.
One of those terms, interestingly, was that AMC wanted Weiner and Lionsgate (the production company) to allow more commercial time and more product placement in order to accommodate salary demands — and, naturally, make more money from the franchise.
Everyone relaxed when it was announced soon after that a deal had been struck for two more seasons. Still, the news that part of the fight was over product placment rankled many. See, Mad Men's success presents a special quandary for product placement critics. The show has consciously, and vigorously, sprinkled sponsors' products throughout its episodes. And yet, the show, with product placement at its backbone, has won four Golden Globes and 13 Emmy awards.
That Mad Men heavily incorporates product placement is certainly no secret. But what does remain a mystery is how much brands pay for the placements — and which brands don't pay a dime for some of TV's most prestigious air-time. Cadillac has insisted its placements have all been free. Heineken, conversely, has engineered some expansive (and no doubt expensive) paid deals with Mad Men (at top).
Keeping this who-is-and-who-isn't product placement information a secret is a key to the product placement success of the program. The audience never knows which brands are aid and which aren't, which makes criticism difficult. As AMC president Charlie Collier, a former ad sales exec, has coyly stated, "We absolutely have product integration on the show, but you shouldn't know which ones are paid and which ones aren't."
Weiner, meanwhile, has commented that there have only been three paid product placement in Mad Men's first four seasons. Which ones? You'll have to guess.
Just a few of the products featured for pay or play include Utz potato chips, Cross pens, Maidenform, Gillette, American Airlines, London Fog, Stolichnaya and Honda.
Of course, the advertising setting for Mad Men creates more natural opportunities than most to showcase brands through product integration. But its is hardly the only award-winning TV series to enlist the practice.
Product placement, including (like Mad Men) for Cadillac, could be found all over Emmy-winning HBO series The Sopranos — the series where Weiner caught Hollywood's attention as a writer, by the way. An episode of The Good Wife, which was recently nominated for an Emmy alongside Mad Men, made Electrolux kitchen appliances a plot point.
Award-winning television is hardly a standalone medium in this regard, either. Three of this year's Oscar nominees for best film incorporated healthy amounts of pre-arranged product placement, from Budweiser in The Fighter to Barbie in Toy Story 3 to Capital One and Pepsi in 127 Hours.
All of this presents a particular challenge to critics who take it as a given that product placement equals bad programming. They're fooling themselves if they think that that high-class entertainment doesn't sully itself with brands and paid-for product placement. It seems it's more likely that product placement itself doesn't ruin programming — indeed, brands can and do add authenticity to a character and storyline if integrated well — crummy scripts do.