We live in a TV universe that’s increasing subsumed by product integration.
When the “Top Chef” contestants drive out to the country, they’re careful to mention the type of car they’re taking. When the cops on “Hawaii Five-0” have a question, they inevitably utilize Bing. When Big Mike wants to show his admiration for Morgan on “Chuck,” he can only do it through a tasty sandwich.
We have expectations for how broad and brazen product integration can be, but we’re still surprised when a show commits to the game as completely as “Cougar Town” did in its most recent installment.
In the episode, Brian Van Holt’s Bobby decides he needs a sponsor to make his PGA Tour comeback seem real and he sets out to land Diet Dr. Pepper. He festoons himself with Diet Dr. Pepper logos, sings the beverage’s praises and then, in one climactic scene, he achieves appropriately Bobby-esque Zen enlightenment with the help of the drink’s audible fizziness.
The extended gag was one-half actual sell-out and one-half winking acknowledgment of the embarrassment of selling out.
During last week’s Television Critics Association press tour visit to the “Cougar Town” set in Culver City, I made a point of corralling the involved parties to discuss the importance, financially and narratively, of Diet Dr. Pepper.
Their responses after the break…
“I am not a giant fan of product integration,” acknowledged executive producer Kevin Biegel. “Even if it’s the most clever way of doing it in the world, it just screams ‘That’s product integration! They’re shilling for a company!’ But I felt that in the realm of our show and the way that we did it, it was totally naturally and it worked.”
Biegel added, “We get approached by people all of the time and the reality is that most shows now do. I guarantee you, hell, even ‘Fringe,’ I bet, is getting calls like, ‘Hey, do you guys want to sell Mountain Dew? The crazy scientist dad tries to do something and maybe Mountain Dew ends up being the secret ingredient…’ I’m sure they get those calls all the time. We were thinking of a way to make Bobby seem maybe a little bit more legit. If we had done that story and it was like, ‘Drink Super Cola!’ I would have hated it, because it would be super-fake. We would have done that story anyway, so using a real product made it better. But still, even if it’s clever and good, you still kinda go, ‘Eh. I don’t know if I like myself at the end of the day.’ But I did! I thought it was a good story and I thought it worked.”
That doesn’t mean that the actor entrusted with making the pitch was instantly enthused.
“Yeah. I’m like, ‘Wow. So it’s come to this? I know people aren’t watching commercials nowadays with TiVo and DVR, so I guess we’re going to do over-the-top and blatant product placement,'” Van Holt laughed. “But I think they incorporated it nicely. It worked into the story. It wasn’t as blatant as it could have been. And now I’m sponsored by Diet Dr. Pepper. I feel like I’m the new Diet Dr. Pepper spokesman. Where’s my check?!?”
Executive producer Bill Lawrence was even more candid.
“Oh dude. Diet Dr. Pepper! Unapologetic, absolute product placement,” Lawrence told HitFix. “Look, here’s the reality: This show is pricey above-the-line. I don’t usually do shows like that. In the past, I’ve really had new actors and a smaller, more claustrophobic production, so this is straight economics. You’ve gotta supplement. I’ve never done it. I’m learning as I go. On that one, I tried to lean into the joke. You know how I said, ‘I always f*** up the first time?’ Too far. Should have dropped it right after the opening gag. But to me, it’s like, ‘Why’d you do it?’ Well, because our show is $240,000 over budget and we pumped it right into the budget and we aren’t a big enough hit that I can go over-budget at the end the year.”
Lawrence continued, “By the same token, in a weird comedy writer way, I think to try and be sneakier and try to hide it, more often than not, is almost more insidious. I always worry, though, is that the misperception is that we get the dough. That’s the only thing that panics. You’ll read online or on Twitter, ‘How much money did they need from Diet Dr. Pepper?’ As if I’m like [He pantomimes counting out bills from a huge wad of money.] We’re required, well not required, but it’s been suggested to us that we do one more and it’s for Subway and I think we’re going going to try and hide this one. We’re going to take an outside shot at being a little more sneaky. We’ll see if I screw it up again. I always f*** up the first time. It was horrible.”
One last tidbit of information from last week’s Pepperific “Cougar Town”: The episode’s credit title parenthetical (the weekly mockery of the show’s unfortunate name) was going to be “Brought to You by Diet Dr. Pepper, we’re so sorry.” As you can imagine, that didn’t fly.
A new episode of “Cougar Town” airs tonight at 9:30 p.m. on ABC.