Why Were 'Gossip Girl' Characters Chatting About a Discontinued Tablet?

Tuning In: The Problem with Product Placement? Once You Weave It Into the Show, You Can't Rip it Out

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The HP TouchPad takes a star turn on The CW's 'Gossip Girl.'
The HP TouchPad takes a star turn on The CW's 'Gossip Girl.'

You'd think getting one of those new-fangled Hewlett-Packard TouchPads into the hands of central "Gossip Girl" character Serena van der Woodsen would be seen as quite the coup. Instead, that achievement -- no mean feat, we suspect -- has become an emblem of one problem with the ever-popular ad practice known as product placement.

Yes, that was an HP TouchPad being given the full-screen treatment in last week's season premiere of "Gossip Girl" on the CW network. Yes, the HP logo was prominent on screen as "GG" characters used the tablet device to track a list of errands Serena had to run to keep her vaunted Hollywood internship. And yes, you're right, any buzz that the guest-starring role might have lent to the new gee-whiz gadget is likely to come to naught. HP, after all, had largely pulled back on its ambitious TouchPad plans weeks before the product made its cameo.

Here, then, is one of the bigger problems emerging as more advertisers seek product placement and as more TV networks rush to accommodate them.

It's an even bigger risk for those who are integrating products well. Really smart placements can't just be hammered into a show. They seem more natural, more a part of the program's plot and flow, if writers and producers can stitch them into the story. But that often requires weeks of planning, well before the scheduled appearance of the car, phone or gadget slated for promotion. In that interim, who knows what might happen to the sponsor's business plans?

This has happened before. Toyota likely thought it had made a smart choice when it secured a deal to place several different car models in the first season of ABC's "Modern Family." Then the company found itself in the midst of a massive and controversial recall, creating a situation in which a sitcom family wound up driving a car brand suddenly operating under a cloud. At least in that case Toyota might benefit from the integration in repeats, after the furor died down. HP, on the other hand, said in August that it was getting out of the tablet business (aside from "one last run" of TouchPads).

"HP had secured TouchPad placements on several television shows airing this fall prior to when the decision was made to discontinue TouchPad production," an HP spokesperson said by email. "As many of the shows were well into production and had established characters filmed with webOS devices, many studios decided to proceed as planned with these placements." The company declined to identify the other TV shows that contained shots of TouchPads.

Never fear, "Gossip Girl" fans. You'll still see the kids in the show making use of ultra-hip HP devices (despite, or maybe because, the sense that cutting-edge kids would glom on to something made by Apple, Verizon or LG Electronics). Under a larger deal sculpted by HP and Omnicom Group's PHD, more HP products are slated to show up during the current "GG" season, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.

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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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