As you know, since the advent of Tivos and DVRs, the visibility of commercials has gone down. No one really likes most commercials - they are loud, often obnoxious, and only designed to manipulate the viewer into buying things. So the ability to zip past them to watch the main event, the actual television show itself, is a welcome relief for many of us.
The problem, of course, is that the commercial is what pays for the airing of the show, not the viewer. I remember being so surprised as a girl when I realized that we didn't pay anything for the shows we watched (obviously before the days of HBO, Pay-Per-View, and well, even cable). We paid for everything else - why not the shows we watched? Instead, it is the advertiser who pays for what we see. They give money to the show so their commercial airs during the breaks. And, because we are such sheep, we actually base some of our decisions on what we see in those commercials. But that is a soapbox I won't get into now.
But now advertisers have to figure out a way to get their commericals seen. One way is to place the product in the actual show itself. In Heroes once, Hiro threw car keys to Ando and told him to "take the Versa." On The Closer, the Chief takes one of her staff person's Prius, and refers to it by name. Damages and Cadillac had a deal where a number of clues were given in one of their SUVs. I don't watch a lot of reality shows, but I've heard they are the biggest offenders of product placement. The funniest product placement was seen in 30 Rock, when two characters discussed the great service Verizon gives its customers. Tina Fey then looks at the camera asking, "Can we have our money now?"
Sometimes product placements don't interrupt the storyline at all. Most people I know who own Priuses refer to their car by name. But Hiro's use of the word "Versa" actually took me out of the storyline in confusion. I had never heard of a Versa - did people actually refer to it that way? It turns out, no. The clues in the Cadillac were actually the most confusing and unrelated of all the clues in the less than stellar second season of Damages.
Thursday night, I had an opportunity to see product placement that almost took over an episode of television. You may have heard of a little movie coming out called Avatar? Even I have heard of it. And so have the squints on Bones. Fisher, my least favorite of the not-Zack interns, has scored three tickets. And he recognizes that Hodgins and Sweets are probably as geeky as he is in his desire to see the movie on the first possible day. They agree that they need to camp out at the theater to make sure they get good seats, so they develop a schedule. Which is interrupted, of course, by the investigation into the murder of the week.
They storyline almost worked for these characters, since they are all more or less nerds who probably would have given their right arm to see the movie on its premiere day. I could see them developing a schedule for protecting their spot in line. And it led to Sweets realizing that his relationship with Daisy is way more satisfying than Fisher's one night stands. What pushed it beyond the limits, however, was the airing of a commercial during the actual episode itself. They used Angela's pretty cool computer screen, and Hodgins declared he couldn't tell what was special effects and what wasn't anymore. Really Jack? The paranoid genius with a strong cynical nature can't figure out what is CGI? Whatever.
I don't know how much Avatar paid to get this product placement, but as the "b" storyline of the episode, it got a prominent place in the episode. It will most certainly date the episode during reruns and syndication. Perhaps instead of slicing actual plot like they do in syndication, however, they can lose the Avatar in-episode commercial. Unless it is the DVD of Avatar paying for the airing of the rerun.