In the first episode of CBS's "The Crazy Ones," fictitious agency Roberts & Roberts is about to be axed by its biggest client. The father-daughter ad team, played by Robin Williams and Sarah Michelle Gellar, has 24 hours to reverse the decision of a dour group of McDonald's executives. "It looks like someone had an unhappy meal," Mr. Williams deadpans to them.
Their save-the-account idea -- to remake the chain's famed "You Deserve a Break Today" jingle -- ends up as a sex song about meat performed by Kelly Clarkson.
Some viewers will likely take McDonald's role as paid product placement, but it wasn't. It was a purely creative decision by writer and executive producer David E. Kelly, according to a spokesman for producer Twentieth Century Fox.
Executives working on the series received McDonald's consent to be referenced in the pilot. And it's clear why CBS would want McDonald's sign-off: The company spent $72.5 million for TV commercials on the Eye network in 2012, according to Kantar Media.
McDonald's agreed "because the brand was portrayed in line with its values and commitment to its customers in a fun and interesting way," said Marlena Peleo-Lazar, McDonald's chief creative officer.
But McDonald's approval wasn't completely necessary, at least legally speaking.
There are few laws protecting the use of brands in TV shows and movies without their consent. Trade libel, which protects brands from being falsely portrayed in a harmful light, is difficult to prove when it comes to TV and movies in the U.S.
In order to argue trade libel, the brand represented would have to prove the statements made were not only untrue, but were represented as fact, not opinion, according to Christine Corcos, associate professor of law at Louisiana State University Law Center. The writers and producers of a show would also have to make the statement knowing it's untrue and with reckless disregard to its validity. And "the company has to lose business directly as a result of the defendant's statement and must be able to show that link," she said.
That standard means marketers have little control over how their brands are used in media. Jaguar knows this firsthand.
The carmaker played an unflattering role in the fifth season of AMC's "Mad Men." In order for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce to secure the account, a Jaguar dealer demanded one of the characters, Joan Harris, sleep with him. And when another character, Lane Pryce, tried to kill himself in a Jaguar, he was unsuccessful because the car wouldn't start.
Jaguar wasn't involved in the script and did not learn any details of its portrayal until episodes aired.
"Well-known brands are a part of popular culture. We have to accept there are other voices out there, not just ours. It's not our job to control those voices," said Stuart Schorr, VP-communications at Jaguar, adding "you have to have thick skin."
So Jaguar had fun with its reccurring role, via social media. It created a photo gallery on its Facebook page, featuring real Jag ads from the 1960's, and Mr. Schorr reported a huge spike in web traffic during Jaguar's appearance on the series.
McDonald's wouldn't discuss whether there are plans to use its presence in "The Crazy Ones" as a marketing opportunity.