'Restaurant' serves up lesson in how not to integrate brands

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Anyone interested in the brand-integration space needs to closely watch NBC's "The Restaurant"-to learn what absolutely not to do.

Already a dreadful show on its own, "The Restaurant" is rendered nearly unwatchable by product placements that are aggressive, intrusive and clunky-anything but the seamless blend necessary to make them bearable, never mind bringing them near to the (perhaps unattainable) standard of enhancing the programming.

"The Restaurant," which chronicles the opening of celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito's New York eatery, is not content with showing American Express cards being used to pay for meals, or shots of Rocco pulling up to the door in his Mitsubishi. Instead, it repeatedly and blatantly crosses the line and tests the limits of viewers' tolerance.

In the first episode, Rocco pulls up in his SUV in front of hundreds of hopefuls auditioning for jobs as waiters and bartenders. One young guy at the front of the line turns to another and says something like-and this is supposedly spontaneous even though he's wearing a microphone-"what a perfect car for Rocco. What a chick-mobile." In another episode, a weary Rocco reviews the restaurant's financials after a particularly draining day. He's slumped in a chair, fretting that more money is going out than coming in. Suddenly he announces, awkwardly, "I know what I'll do. I'll have Stacy apply for a line of credit from American Express' Open: The Small Business Network." The camera then cuts to a shot of Stacy at AmEx's Open Web site.

Spare us. The placement is crass and phony, and stops you cold. It's almost impossible to enjoy or trust the show after that. The American Express Open ad that features Rocco and appears during almost every commercial break is salt in the wound.

It's a mystery why marketers would even want to be associated with the show. "The Restaurant" is ceaselessly negative. Rocco's range of emotions runs from anger to frustration. His employees are mostly malcontents. Diners complain the food is overpriced, cold and tasteless. Everyone mugs for the cameras. It's riveting, but only in the car-wreck sense.

Contrast that with Bravo's breakout hit "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and it's easy to see why NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker is eager to import the cable show to his broadcast network. "Queer Eye" is everything "The Restaurant" isn't-engaging, funny, original. And it mixes in products without ever stomping on the story. Credit goes to Executive Producer David Collins, who is open to integration but aware of the danger of the show becoming "one big infomercial."

"Queer Eye's" Fab Five take makeover candidates on shopping sprees that include retailers tied to the program. The camera reveals quick glimpses of storefront signs but doesn't linger lovingly on them. When the shoppers walk down the street, their Pier One bags are part of the scene, not the focus. The hosts even mock participating marketers. Piling the long hair of a "straight guy" on top of his head, fashion maven Carson Kressley declared that he looked like Kirstie Alley, Pier One's grating spokeswoman.

"Queer Eye" is also just fun. ("You don't own anything except a boomerang," interior decorator Thom Filicia tells one slob with perfect comic timing.)

"No one will ever have to eat anything they don't want to," Rocco declares in his American Express commercial. " It's a jab at tawdry reality programs such as NBC's own "Fear Factor." But the pot should think twice before calling the kettle black, especially when the pot is plastered over with logos.

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