March 16th, 2008

Smallville Product Placement Hits New Low

By Mark Wilson
About.com

So we wait patiently for new episodes of Smallville to arrive in the strike-inflicted bursts we’ve been getting so far this year. We settle in for a one on Thursday, the first new episode in a month. And what do we get? An hour-long commercial for Stride gum, Smallville’s obnoxiously visible new uber-sponsor.

Now Smallville is already a little notorious for intrusive product placement; previous indictments can be found throughout the blogsphere (here’s an example). But this was a new low. Even TV Guide called the product placement in “Hero” “over the top.”

A big chunk of the action in “Hero” takes place at a Stride gum factory that’s being let out for concerts, and there are huge Stride logos everwhere, starting with an enormous logo outside the “factory” (which looks more like a big dance club in the establishing shots) and continuing inside where banners with the Stride logo hang from the rafters for the characters to walk past or get beaten up in front of.

That’s Level A product placement. Level B is having your characters use the product and flash the packaging for the camera, which guest star Sam Jones III, a former regular returning to the show for the first time in four years, obligingly does at the end of the episode.

Annoyed yet? Wait for the kicker. Level C is a marketing doozie worthy of Lex Luthor himself: Stride gum gives you superpowers! Want proof? Check out Pete Ross, Jones’s character, who chews a single stick of Stride gum (which, remember, is a real-world product) and turns into Elastic Man, immediately becoming a hero by stretching out his arms and saving Kara’s life from a totally random falling equipment tower. The origin story – a batch of the gum contaminated by an equally random vein of kryptonite (I hate it when that happens) – is quickly dispensed with off-camera, but the connection between Stride and Pete’s powers is reinforced by his continuing to pop sticks of the gum throughout the episode.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that The CW and its sponsor wanted young viewers to make the connection between Stride gum and stretchy superpowers. The breathtaking chutzpah displayed by the network and the sponsor in going beyond mere placement and turning an entire episode into an ad for (wink, wink) supergum is, I think, kinda reprehensible.

And as if that weren’t enough, the parts of the episode that weren’t pushing Stride were given over to the pop group One Republic, which got three performances during the episode ("Apologize", “Stop and Stare”, and “Mercy Lyrics"). Even Charmed never got that bad. Don’t mistake me – I like having contemporary pop and rock music mixed into youth-oriented dramas; it adds to the atmosphere. And I have nothing against this particular band. But two on-camera sets and a third on the soundtrack? That’s heavy product placement, hijacking the episode to shill for a corporate sponsor. With that on top of the brutally aggressive Stride marketing (which also popped up on ticker-line bugs during the episode), the suits took what should have been a cool mini-reunion episode and totally ruined it. I like my ads in ad form, not as entire episodes of one of my shows.

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