NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- On its face, TNT's "Men of a Certain Age" has three stars: Ray Romano, Scott Bakula and Andre Braugher, each playing a guy approaching 50 and dealing with the problems that come when you're no longer so young. Yet the show boasts another player who is considerably older and might be getting just as much screen time: General Motors' Chevrolet.
The popular vehicle make has for two seasons played a role just as integral to "Men" as any of the actors on the show. One character, Mr. Braugher's Owen Thoreau, helps run a Chevrolet dealership. This season, the Chevy focus has only intensified, with Owen hiring his pal, Scott Bakula's Terry, to work at the dealership too. In just six episodes, viewers have seen signs for General Motors' OnStar service; a pitch for the Chevy Volt; a pitch for the Chevrolet Cruze; and watched as Ray Romano's character, Joe, drives the roads in a Chevrolet Silverado. (Six more episodes are slated for this summer.)
Cars and TV shows go together like baseball, hot dogs and apple pie (and Chevrolet, as one 1970s car ad told us), so it's not particularly astonishing to see Chevy win placement in a TNT drama. What's eyebrow-raising is the degree of the car's presence on screen and in script. Most product placements, after all, are significantly less ambitious.
Cars, phones and soda cans show up in the background, and their appearances aren't typically sustained throughout an entire season. The decision to place characters at a Chevrolet-backed setting week after week means that General Motors must commit significantly greater resources to the relationship than is the norm.
"Most people aren't doing that kind of stuff, and I love the fact that we can make art imitate life in a way," said Steve Tihanyi, general director, marketing alliances, services and branded entertainment at Chevrolet, who acknowledged that such an effort is more work-intensive. "We knew going in that we'd have to deal with some unique issues," he said, but "you don't get a lot of these opportunities, so we said, 'Yes, let's go for it.'"
Sometimes, the opportunity to appear frequently in a series doesn't emulate what a marketer is trying to promote. Before "Chuck" launched on NBC in the fall of 2007, Best Buy Co. was approached to see if it would consider serving as the electronics store in which many of the show's characters work as either sales clerks or members of a "Nerd Herd" (similar to Best Buy's "Geek Squad"). The retailer declined. "The 'Chuck' backdrop was not consistent with all the changes we intended to make -- and continue to make," said Erin Bix, a spokeswoman. The store so central to "Chuck" is instead part of the fictional "Buy More" chain.
Advertisers may want to use caution when testing this approach. Not only does Mr. Tihanyi have to monitor scripts to make sure the "Men" writers get their facts and specs straight, he also has to supply more vehicles to the show than is typical for this kind of promotion. After all, you only need a few autos to make a chase scene. Filling a car dealership takes a lot more (the Thoreau car-lot scenes are actually shot at a real Chevrolet dealership in Northridge, Calif.).
The process is extremely hands-on, said Mike Rosen, president-director of activation at Publicis Groupe's Starcom, which orchestrated the financials behind the deal. "To do something of this scale and depth requires an incredibly high level of both trust and cooperation between no less than half a dozen stakeholders," he said, including not only the creative team on the show and the advertiser, but the sales team at TNT's parent, Time Warner's Turner Entertainment; TNT's promotional and marketing departments; and Chevrolet's ad shops.
Yet there's reason to roll up one's sleeves. Citing research from Nielsen IAG, which measures viewer response to and recall of product placements, Turner Entertainment says Chevy integrations in the first season of "Men of a Certain Age" generated recall scores 75% higher than placements in other broadcast and cable programs. Purchase consideration for Chevrolet was 65% higher among viewers of the "Men" placements than for viewers of other Chevy program appearances, Turner said.
Oddly enough, producers had Chevy in mind when they created the show, said Mike Royce, co-creator of "Men" and an executive producer. He based the story premise on the history of a friend who had taken over leadership of a car dealership from his father, much like Owen Thoreau does on "Men." In the early stages of the program's development, he recalled, "we felt it should be a brand that had been around, a real American brand, and so Chevy was just written in." Producers had no idea if they'd be able to keep Chevrolet on board once a TV network agreed to run the show, he added.
"They were going to give us permission to use their brand and they were interested in a tie that helps the show stay on the air financially," said Mr. Royce. "Our thing was we just wanted [characters] to be selling real cars and saying real things, and we were actually living in fear that we wouldn't be able to say what salespeople would really say. This has turned out to be the opportunity. We get to have them say very specific things about the car business."
Sometimes, that includes stuff that isn't so spiffy. "Men" has shown car dealers playing nasty practical jokes on each other—sometimes in full view of customers—and also depicted rivalries between salesmen and auto-repair mechanics. Even the cheesy, low-fi ads often typical of local dealerships have served as grist for the mill.
Chevrolet does not have final say or any sort of authority on scripts, said Mr. Tihanyi, but he does tend to focus on how dealers are depicted: "The thing I do pay the most attention to is that we don't portray our dealers in a negative light. We all know dealers have to sell cars, and they obviously have an approach to how they do it," he said, adding, "We want to make sure we don't make our dealership environment look foolish on air."