At a time when so many more TV shows are weaving cars and soda cans into their stories to drum up extra money from advertisers, NBC's "30 Rock" has managed to stand apart. Oftentimes, when the writers include a paid appearance by a bottle of Snapple or something from Verizon Wireless, they let the characters wink at the audience and make fun of the producers dropping their trousers to get a few more dollars' worth of ad revenue into the General Electric network's corporate coffers.
So it's no surprise that a lot of folks who saw last week's episode assumed that the inclusion of McDonald's and its McFlurry product in the story line was another example of the producers getting creative with having to jam another marketer into the program. McDonald's aired an ad during the episode, making it even easier to believe that the massive burger chain had paid for its products to be mentioned by Alec Baldwin and Salma Hayek, whose characters are dating and reconciled after a spat at a local Mickey D's franchise. "It wasn't the clever, winking product placement that can get away with itself; it was more like bad ad copy," wrote Hamilton Nolan on Gawker last week.
Ah, but we here at Adages, for once, actually picked up the phone and made a few calls! As it turns out, the McDonald's inclusion was really part of the script; McDonald's didn't pay for it, said Jennifer Lane Landolt, director-entertainment alliances for McDonald's. NBC's ad-sales department was also made aware of the inclusion, according to an NBC spokeswoman.
"30 Rock" approached executives from the restaurant chain in advance, asking if they could make use of a McDonald's restaurant for filming purposes, she said. McDonald's executives examined the script and found nothing in it that portrayed the company and its restaurants in a bad light, Ms. Lane Landolt said. "If we felt that something disparaged the brand, we would have pushed back on what they did, but no, we didn't make any changes," she said. The episode was shot in a restaurant operated by an independent New York City franchisee, who was paid for the time his store was closed. The McDonald's ad that ran during the show was "part of our traditional media buy," said Ms. Lane Landolt; no advertising was moved around specifically to be near the "30 Rock" episode.
Even so, there was a perception among viewers that the McDonald's appearance might have been a paid-for sort of deal -- which just goes to show how one production staff's creative stance on product placement can turn even the most wide-eyed audience member cynical. In 2006, the fictional staff of writers portrayed on "30 Rock" derided the fact they were being made to include Snapple in the story line, then winkingly talked about how much they love the iced tea. Last year, Tina Fey's character talked about how much she loved products made by Verizon Wireless, then turned to the camera and said, "Can we have our money now?"
It all makes you wonder: Has "30 Rock's" facility at mocking products with one hand and collecting money for doing so with the other made the show a more difficult venue for this sort of thing? If pundits and viewers assume that any brand mention on the show is part of an elaborate shilling deal, then how appealing can those products be? It's enough to make Liz Lemon, "30 Rock's" heroine, stay home from work.