Made brands: Tony plugs cars, phones

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"The Sopranos" fifth-season finale left one key question in the minds of viewers.

No, not whether Christopher, after giving up his fiancee Adriana to be shot in the woods like a dog, will remain clean and sober. Nor whether Tony and Carmella's reunion can last.

Rather: Were those stealth product plugs embedded in the show?

Consider the scene in the "Marco Polo" episode, in which a New York mobster shows off his Maserati Coupe to an admiring Tony:

TONY: Maserati. Kinda draws attention, no?

JOHNNY SACK: And, true, friends of ours, most of `em probably wouldn't own it. It's always been a dream of mine to own a fine Italian sports car.

TONY: Absolutely. And in a Guinea gray, looks fantastic.

JOHNNY: Tops out at 176 miles per hour. Standing quarter, 13 and change.

(This scene ends with Johnny and Tony savoring the sound of the ignition, and a shot of the car peeling out.)

Or consider the scene in the "Test Dream" episode, wherein Tony and his mistress Valentina discuss the possibility of taking a vacation at a Caribbean resort:

TONY: What is it-Sneakers or something?

VALENTINA: Sandals. It's the jewel of Antigua. Three sun-filled days on white sand. ... We'll go on a Monday. Get a great rate on an ocean-view.

Or how Tony, in the episode "All Happy Families," presenting a bright-yellow Nissan Xterra to his hyperventilating-with-excitement son A.J., grins and says the sport utility vehicle has "sensors in the seat belts. Part of Nissan's triple-safety philosophy."

"The Sopranos," which airs uninterrupted on a commercial-free network, long ago established itself as a high-water mark of current popular culture. But even the most benign view of the product references that pop out at its viewers testify to the degree to which product-and the attendant concerns of product placement-are an inextricable part of American entertainment circa 2004, even at its most rarefied and ad-free heights.


Conversations on this point tend to bog down over whether or not Americans in a consumerist, product-aware milieu-like that of well-to-do, mobbed-up New Jerseyites-regularly converse via rote regurgitations of product attributes and commercial catchphrases. Paid product placement does not happen on HBO, network and agency executives agree. But some key products provided by marketers are extolled by characters in ways that, depending on one's perspective, are either savvily pop-culturally referential or surprisingly commercial.

Executives who make their living brokering deals that integrate brands into entertainment vehicles scratch their heads at just how far some "Sopranos" dialogue goes.

"Many scenes read like commercials. I am noticing that, and I am taken aback by that," said Mark DiMassimo, CEO of DiMassimo Carr Brand Advertising, New York, who got a prominent product mention, sans payment, in the just-ended season for one client, the Manhattan landmark Plaza Hotel. "I'd say if they were writing purely for dramatic purposes, they could write a little better." Or, as Starcom Entertainment's VP-director Laura Caraccioli-Davis put it, concerning Tony touting Nissan's safety standards: "That one was really obvious. ... It disengaged me from the story. It was very overt." Other brands that enjoyed a not-too-subtle plug from a character's mouth include Whirlpool washing machines and Motorola cellphones.

Brand integration, while easily accepted in reality fare such as CBS's "Survivor," is trickier in scripted dramas or sitcoms. Many producers don't want to appear to be influenced by advertisers, and overt writing of products into scripts have largely been mocked, such as CBS's infamous 1996 sweeps week "Black Pearls" stunt, in which a lineup of four sitcoms worked actress and spokesperson Elizabeth Taylor into the storylines to promote a perfume.

HBO executives insist publicly and privately that the network does not participate in any paid integration deals of the sort that smear Coca-Cola's logo all over "American Idol." "The policy has not changed," said an HBO spokesman. "All of the references you are talking about came from the writers' minds."

`not that i haven't tried'

"If we had paid product placement, I'd be fired," said Ilene Landress, a "Sopranos" executive producer.

Along with many others on his side of the table, Mr. DiMassimo confirms this: "It's not that I haven't tried."

Paid product placement can bring shows serious dollars, as the multimillion marketer deals with "American Idol" attest. Even without paid placement, though, marketers and their agencies can save shows like "The Sopranos" serious money in production costs-which remains a concern for any project on a budget, and perhaps especially so for one in which stars command high salaries. (James Gandolfini, after a drawn-out salary dispute, wound up with a reported salary of around $13 million for portraying Tony Soprano last season.) On this point, while shunning pay-for-play, HBO has pursued products provided by marketers to cut costs, said a former network executive. Others report producers having extensive conversations with marketer representatives over how a product is portrayed.

"It was, always, try to parlay what we're doing into offsetting our [production] budget," said Tina Elmo, who coordinated product placements for HBO's "Sex and the City" and, for one season, "The Sopranos," and who's now an executive at Entertainment Marketing Partners. "HBO didn't fully support product placement," she added, but said it was "unspoken, but a huge part of `Sex and the City."'

"Sometimes we actually buy the car, and sometimes we just rent the car," said Ms. Landress, saying that the time constraints on TV productions were much greater than those for a movie.

"In the case of car companies, if they loan productions their cars, it's a natural opportunity for exposure. And it saves a lot of money," said Patricia Ganguzza, president, Aim Productions, which has worked with "The Sopranos" on product placements involving Snapple, Post cereals and Bertolli olive oil.

In three instances this past season-with the Nissan Xterra, Johnny Sack's Maserati and Tony's imposing Cadillac Escalade-marketers provided vehicles, and scripted comments praising them were placed in the mouths of key characters.

This past season, the Cadillac logo was plainly visible on Tony's headrest and it spent serious time onscreen. After a crash in which he nearly flipped the Escalade, Tony told his hospitalized passenger the SUV was "totaled" but that it "probably saved our lives."

An executive close to GM said the automaker had "a lot of dialogue about the crash" with show officials so it wouldn't reflect badly on the SUV. (A GM spokeswoman said, "We have absolutely no input as to how our vehicles are described in the script or how they're used.")

As for Johnny Sack's prized Maserati, Marco Mattiacci, VP-marketing of Ferrari/Maserati North America, said a producer had approached the company regarding the car after "Sopranos" creator David Chase, among other producers and directors, accepted an invitation last year to test-drive the car. "We had a long conversation with the producer," Mr. Mattiacci said. (Through a spokesman, Mr. Chase denied test-driving a Maserati.) Maserati's one caveat, he said, was that the car couldn't be used in an accident scene or involved in any violence. And it isn't. It shows up in Johnny Sack's driveway as Tony marvels over it, or wet and gleaming on a sidewalk after being washed. In an e-mail, an HBO spokesman said the network followed "industry standards that dictate a product be used in the way in which it is intended."


Ms. Landress and other executives say that HBO has periodically had serious internal discussions over changing or loosening its paid product placement policy. And one executive said the network went as far as to approach potential marketers with specific financial packages. (An HBO spokesman would only say that the network's policy on paid product placement has never changed.)

While there is no evidence HBO has engaged in outright pay-for-placement, it's true the world of brand integration remains a murky one, governed in many cases by nondisclosure agreements or marketers' version of omerta.

"The Sopranos" version is different. But at the very least it shows how difficult it is to remain free of ad-related considerations, even while being an ad-free vehicle on an ad-free network.

A press release for a spring event for Sandals' chain Beaches at New York's Tavern on the Green touted the attendance of Steve Buscemi (Tony's cousin Anthony Blundetto) and other "Sopranos" stars. A spokeswoman for Sandals said, "There was absolutely no correlation" between the on-air Sandals reference "and [actors] coming to the press conference," which she said was arranged by a friend of the company's. (Mr. Buscemi's spokeswoman confirmed his attendance of the event but denied he received any financial or travel-related consideration for doing so.)

Ms. Landress said Sandals surfaced in the script strictly for Tony Soprano's malaprop reference to a resort called "sneakers," and that actors' attendance of the event "falls into the `don't ask, don't tell' category."

"A lot of actors get paid to show up at different events," she said. "If it's not through HBO, I don't want to know about it."

contributing: jean halliday

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