Here's the precise moment that brand integration died for me.
It was during the second season of VH1's "Rock of Love," which I am a brighter and worldlier person for having watched from start to finish. As part of one of the final "challenges" (inasmuch as eating and engaging in polite conversation can be deemed challenging), companionship-craving wig aficionado Bret Michaels congressed with the exes of the four remaining candidates for his hand in love. After trotting the exes out to see to see how the gals reacted, Michaels took the fellas out on the town to ply them with booze and acquire valuable intel, most relating to the genuineness and elasticity of various body parts.
Where'd he take them? To Dave & Buster's, which Michaels described in a to-the-camera monologue as something like a "great place to hang out and play some games and get some beers." If you're a millionaire rock star living in Los Angeles, the endorsement implied, that's how you roll.
This isn't to knock Dave & Buster's, which I'm sure offers an elegant dining experience for the napkin-challenged. I applaud them for trying. But not only did that particular product integration strain the boundaries of credulity, it was also followed up by a commercial bumper identifying the chain as a sponsor. So those who didn't already suspect Michaels was in the tank for D&B were now duly informed.
I wasn't outraged or even bemused by the blatancy and tone-deafness of the plug. I didn't react at all -- just as I didn't when celebrity apprentices warbled about tuna fish or the "American Idol" judges tilted their brand-emblazoned glasses just so. Thanks to lead-footed marketers who believe that product integration is their secret weapon in the jihad against time-shifting, I've become inured to it. I no longer think there's a way to do production integration effectively, try as every piece of programming on Bravo and the Extreme Remorseless Unrepentant Home Makeover-type shows may. I'm not so sure it doesn't do more harm than good.
Nobody agrees on how precisely to measure the effectiveness of product integration (full disclosure: four or five years ago, I worked as an editor for one of the firms that tried). Nobody knows whether consumers notice, care or confuse one oft-integrated brand with the next. As a result, the research on product integration arrives at few hard conclusions, other than "Everybody friggin' LOVED the Reese's Pieces in 'E.T.'"
I can't tell you what works; that's above both my intelligence and pay grades. But I can tell you three sure ways to go down in flames.
The 'Apprentice' approach
Judging by recent returns, allying yourself/your brand with "Celebrity Apprentice" seems to be the most dependable one. Over the course of the show's just-concluded season, marketers ranging from All to Chicken of the Sea dropped in for integration do-si-dos. Maybe the show did something wonderful and innovative with their products, but all I can remember -- and there's a good chance I'm remembering it wrong, likely to the detriment of the brands -- is the wooden performances by marketing execs tasked with participating.
There is a reason that these execs aren't often seen on camera, at least not outside corporate klatches or damage-control press conferences: They aren't performers. They may project wild, Bon Jovian charisma when informing the sales team about the specifics of a new viral program. But on the reality shows, they come across as the guy/gal at the cocktail party who you pull a fire alarm to avoid conversing with.
The passive-aggressive approach
At least marketers who go the 'Apprentice' route aren't lazy about it, which is more than can be said for those who try the passive-aggressive approach, either by finding a way to "sensibly" work their company's name into a script or paying what is presumably actual, valid U.S. currency to have a camera linger on a logo or product for a few seconds longer than it otherwise might. At first, these worked wonderfully and lent the shows an air of verisimilitude: Most TV families live in the same brand-infested era that we do, so the refusal to identify labels and products had the effect of rendering their worlds artificial.
Now, ubiquitous mentions and sightings have rendered most brands and products mere props. I know there's going to be somebody's logo on the cups that sit on the judges' tables; I no longer care whose. Similarly, anytime a character says something brand-specific -- like when characters on "The Sopranos" routinely quipped "I got da Motorola. They say it's da best!" -- I merely marvel at the clumsiness of it all.
The '30 Rock' approach
And then there's faux-ironic product placement, a genre pioneered, dominated and flogged within an inch of its life by "30 Rock." Tina Fey, I'm sure many of you agree, is adorable. She's a gifted, sharp-elbowed comedienne. Alas, she was something less than that when she broke the third wall and held up a bottle of Snapple for the cameras, a grin frozen on her face. Maybe this was created in the interest of fun and commerce; only the second part registered.
So what's left? Beats the hell out of me. Some integration-inclined folks are pointing to the aggressively depressing "Chuck"/Subway tie-in as a primo recent example of well-engineered placement. NBC basically credits the arrangement with Subway for keeping "Chuck" on the air for another season.
Technically, I suppose that qualifies as a success for both parties, but I can't help but think that most of the buzz is attributed to vocal "Chuck" fans. They were loud about Subway, but not in the way the marketer likely imagined. In essence, they said, "Fine, we'll eat enough of these sandwiches to keep Jared outfitted in muumuus until his dying day, just as long as you save our little show."
Or maybe marketers are starting to realize the increasing futility of product- or brand-integration pushes. On Monday's "Gossip Girl" -- which I totally didn't watch -- a generic e-mailbox was flashed onscreen that looked an awful lot like Gmail. I have no idea about the specifics (whether Google was approached, etc.), but it's not something that would've registered had a friend not directed me to it after the fact. It was just another e-mailbox, just another prop.
But if Google, a company that tends to know what the hell it's doing, won't get with the product-integration program, maybe that oughta tell us something. Beware. Be wary.