To most people, saying you're in favor of product placement in movies and TV shows is like saying you're in favor of sexually transmitted diseases. Certainly, in some particularly blatant cases, paid product placement can be ludicrous. (When I saw Twister, the theater erupted in laughter when all the discarded aluminum pop cans collected by characters just happened to be Pepsi cans. Couldn't they at least have thrown in a Mountain Dew or something?) But two shows I watched earlier this week show how the use of real company logos and brand names can make a program look less like a TV show and more like real life.
In the latest episode of The Office, several characters attended a trade show in Philadelphia, and Michael Scott (Steve Carell) goes nuts at the opportunity to collect lots of swag from corporate booths in the exhibition hall. We see him brandishing one of these giant rubber "number one!" hands with the Verizon logo, wearing a Hawaiian shirt advertising Microsoft Office, and harassing a guy dressed up as a giant BlackBerry. It stands to reason that a real paper-industry trade show would have major corporate advertising plastered everywhere, and in this case, it added to the realistic look of the show, just like the HP computers in the Dunder Mifflin offices and the social events held at Chili's. [Note: as far as I know, none of the companies actually featured in The Office actually pay for product placement. Certainly, they don't always come off looking particularly good.]
On the CBS series Jericho, by contrast, the producers bend over backwards not to show any real brand names, save for the occasional appearance of "Chevrolet" on the back of a truck or something. One scene in the latest episode involved a teenaged girl trying to shoplift a can of "Diet Soda" from the town grocery store, and in a payoff scene later in the show, a boy who secretly likes her brings a can of the same drink to her home. Let's get real here: in real life, the girl would be stealing Diet Coke (or maybe Diet Pepsi, if there's something wrong with her sense of taste), and hearing characters talk about "cola" and "soda" is jarringly unrealistic. (Yes, I know people in some parts of the United States and Canada use "soda" as a generic term for all soft drinks – here in Newfoundland, it's "pop" – but I find that people drinking Pepsi or 7UP will say they're drinking "Pepsi" or "7UP." In some places, "Coke" has become a generic term in its own right.)
Like it or not, the real world is emblazoned with advertising, to the point where it's a distraction to see television shows bending over backwards to avoid it. If TV producers don't want to give companies free advertising and/or turn off potential advertisers, can't they at least make an effort to come up with fake products that actually look real? At least "Bargain Bag," the K-Mart stand-in on My Name is Earl, actually looks like a real store. Or maybe they could have some fun with it, like the use of "Generic Puffs" cereal on Family Guy.
Now you know why I don't read Adbusters.