Should Red Bull Have Paid ABC for its Cameo on 'Suburgatory'?

Tuning In: The Increasing Oddity of Product Placement Without Payment

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Red Bull, so the popular beverage's ad slogan tells us, gives you "wiiiiings." Too bad the product's recent appearance in an ABC sitcom offered the network nothing but food for thought.

The caffeinated delight made a not-too-subtle cameo in the premiere episode of teen-angst comedy "Suburgatory," at one point appearing in a scene in which a fridge full of Red Bull cans filled the screen. With a 30-second spot on "Suburgatory" costing an average of nearly $125,000, according to Ad Age research, each second of a product appearing on ABC's air ought to capture around $4,167 for the network, right? According to a Red Bull statement, however, the company does not typically pay for its appearances in TV shows -- suggesting that ABC gave Red Bull screen time without making a cent.

Even though the TV industry has become fascinated with product placement over the past decade or so, plenty of products' appearances are actually still orchestrated by writers, prop masters or stage designers instead of network ad-sales teams. Why don't the networks crack down on these unpaid appearances, especially after pitching marketers for years on the value of in-show appearances?

ABC does make a business for itself by integrating sponsors into TV shows, and even has a reputation among media-buying executives as being a trifle more controlling than others. ABC allowed Sprint to devise vignettes that played directly off the themes of its popular Sunday-night drama "Desperate Housewives" in the fall of 2009, allowing showrunner Marc Cherry to design the segments. More recently, ABC struck a deal with Dr Pepper/Seven Up's Canada Dry ginger ale to have the beverage served on the planes of this season's retro-themed "Pan Am" drama.

But ABC has also allowed a number of no-doubt-valuable guest-starring roles to proceed without, apparently, collecting a dime from the marketers who benefit. Who can forget the spring 2010 episode of ABC's "Modern Family" that , whether intentionally or not, ended up being a 30-minute commercial for the soon-to-debut Apple iPad? Apple insisted it had adhered to an ongoing policy of not paying for products to appear in programs (though it certainly supplied its goods to the show's producers when the plotline of this particular episode started to emerge).

A 2009 episode of "Grey 's Anatomy" featured popular character Izzie Stevens touting a bottle of Izze Sparkling Pomegranate fruit beverage -- all due to the efforts of set dressers and prop personnel, and not because of any money handed over to the network. (A 30-second spot on "Grey 's Anatomy" in the 2008-2009 season, by the way, cost an average of $326,685 according to Ad Age research, meaning that each second of Izzie carrying Izze on screen could presumably have been worth nearly $10,890.)

These product appearances do not catch ABC unawares; the network's ad-sales department said in a statement: "We have a very robust and collaborative process with every studio centered on all of these issues."

ABC isn't the only network forced to reckon with this dynamic. All the TV networks want to be in the product-placement business, and yet all of them have at one time or another allowed for the free placement of messages from potential sponsors. Over at NBC, for example, any number of would-be local advertisers and national marketers have continued to place ad signs in the hands of members of the live audience for "Today." And close watchers of "30 Rock" have grown so accustomed to seeing the show's actors take arch delight in skewering its product-placement deals with Snapple and Verizon that they barely raise an eyebrow when a plot one week gave McDonald's a starring -- but unpaid -- role.

Free cameos may be unstoppable, as it turns out. Subway Restaurants, for one, for several years hired a firm to arrange in-show placement by dealing with the Hollywood community, not the network ad-sales teams back East; networks have an interest in playing nice with the creative people who get your shows on the air. Many important shows also hail from outside production studios, over which a network may not have as much sway. Warner Bros. produces "Suburgatory," for example, while 20th Century Fox produces "Modern Family," perhaps giving ABC less leverage than it has over ABC Studios offerings such as "Grey 's Anatomy" or "Private Practice."

If the TV suits want to get the most money out of their costly productions at a time of great industry flux, however, allowing for the free trickle of "Red Bull" over "Subugatory" probably isn't the best course of action.

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Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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