How '30 Rock' Pitched Kraft on Product Placement

In Rare Outreach, Show Staff Sought Advertiser Familiar With TV's Earliest Days

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You would think getting a product placement in NBC's "30 Rock" would take a lot of pleading and begging. The show, after all, has gained fame in ad-industry circles for an eyebrow-raising technique that moves the practice from inserting a can of soda or a smartphone to a much louder role. It usually involves members of the cast making fun of the product or its TV-screen intrusion, often to resounding social chatter.

Tina Fey rehearsing for the '30 Rock' live show.
Tina Fey rehearsing for the '30 Rock' live show. Credit: NBC

In at least one case, however, the staff of "30 Rock" made a pitch to a sponsor rather than the other way around.

With just weeks to go before the launch of a special live episode of the offbeat comedy, "30 Rock" producers and NBC ad-sales staff reached out to Kraft. The TV team said a live episode celebrating the history of live TV was in the offing and they wanted to use a sponsor in a sketch that was around in the medium's early days, recounted Brent Poer, exec VP-executive creative director at Starcom MediaVest Group's LiquidThread unit, which specializes in weaving ad messages into content.

The end result was an episode in which Kraft cheese "singles" got a mention in a fictional "Kraft Product Placement Comedy Hour" during which Kraft's dairy product was touted as "the cheese that won World War II." The first ad in the next commercial break was for, no surprise, Kraft Singles. Later in the episode, producer and star Tina Fey gave a paid shout-out to "Rock of Ages," a Tom Cruise movie slated for summer release from Warner Bros.

The approach from "30 Rock" represented "a very rare occurrence," said Mr. Poer, who is more accustomed to sitting down with writers and producers to offer "brand briefings" in the hope that they'll create a plot or some dialogue incorporating his clients. Much of his work, he said, comes from integration deals struck during upfront negotiations, in which the TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Show producers typically don't beat the bushes for product placement unless the program wants to film a scene in a particularly difficult or costly setting -- such as a reality competition's finale in a far-off place.

Kraft already had a spot set to run in the show, Mr. Poer added, which made the concept more likely to work.

NBC declined to make executives available for comment.

Hitching your promotional wagon to a live show comes with risks. The sponsor can never be certain the dialogue or action will come off as expected. Ms. Fey, for example, flubbed some of her non-ad-related lines during the East Coast showing of the live "30 Rock" episode. Even so, more advertisers are testing this technique, especially during late night, where everyone from Jimmy Kimmel to David Letterman has allowed tailor-made promotions on their programs.

Nothing may be more intriguing for a straitlaced marketer, however, than a promotional berth on "30 Rock." Under Ms. Fey and her fellow producer, Robert Carlock, the program has gained notoriety for showcasing marketers who don't mind being made fun of in the process. Verizon Wireless, Snapple and Dr Pepper have all gained buzz from paid appearances in or around the show.

Characters sometimes peck at the underlying finances of the TV business that necessitate such advertising ("Can we have our money now?" asks Ms. Fey's Liz Lemon after doing a Verizon pitch on-screen). In another instance, Chris Parnell's Dr. Spaceman held forth on the virtues of drinking Dr Pepper in a vignette that rolled after the main show had ended.

"30 Rock" has good reason for tackling these assignments. Running in-show ads can lend added funds to a program's production budget, and in some instances, the marketer will agree to promote the show in its own advertising -- a bonus for a program like "30 Rock," which doesn't bring in NBC's best ratings and may get less attention from those responsible for marketing the network's lineup.

It's perhaps too bad that more sitcoms aren't experimenting with live episodes. At the dawn of TV, live ads were the rule. The live integrations for Kraft and "Rock of Ages" bring TV full circle again, if only for an episode.

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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