Product Placement in Dexter – Blog Assignment #7

Dexter is a glimpse into the darkly-dreaming mind of Dexter Morgan– Miami Metro blood spatter analyst by day, serial killer of serial killers by night. The show began its fourth season on September 27th, focusing on Dexter’s newest role: that of a family man. It’s no surprise that Dexter is having difficulty balancing his duties as a father and husband with his unrelenting, instinctual impulse to kill.

Airing on the pay-cable Showtime network, owned by the CBS Corporation and, in turn, Sumner Redstone’s massive conglomerate National Amusements, Dexter runs uninterrupted by commercials. To generate revenue, the show relies on Showtime subscriptions, sales of DVD season box-sets, and product placements during the show– referred to as “product integration” if ever referenced by the Showtime brass.

As an avid consumer of film and television, I regularly see product placements (*ahem* product integration) in media messages. From my personal, non-scientific, anecdotal perspective, I’ve noticed a huge increase in the use of product placements in the last year. This has been especially obvious in television programs, probably to make up for advertising revenues lost during mobile and internet broadcasts on new media outlets such as cell phones and

I would also consider myself a conscientious consumer of media, so I may catch product placements that other consumers would miss. I think it’s important to be aware of these advertising tactics, however; it’s important to know when you are being exposed to intentional commercial speech. This is why subliminal advertising is seen as deceptive. I believe the same sort of scrutiny should be applied to product integration.

What’s more, I find many product placements distracting and disruptive to a narrative. When used without subtlety, they can actually detract from the viewing experience. When the narrative is built around a product (as opposed to a product being woven into the narrative), it’s typically nauseating.

In any case, Dexter has always featured a good amount of product integration. This season, the advertising technique has become even more pervasive– and, yes, intrusive.

The season premiere featured the passive appearance of several products. In these cases, the products were prominently showcased in the frame without being directly addressed or discussed.

In this scene, two bags of Doritos flank the frame as a sleep-deprived Dexter orders some coffee.

Dexter owns an Apple laptop, and the Apple logo is prominently displayed throughout the show.

The police department uses HP desktop computers, and the HP logo appears whenever a scene takes place there. In this particular scene, the logo remains in the frame, uninterrupted by other shots or camera movements, for over ten seconds.

I don’t mind this sort of product placement as much. The products fill inevitable object positions (cops need to use computers, food vendors sell chips) or decorate the frame in a sense. Unbranded items are least distracting from a narrative standpoint, but I might even prefer to see actual logos than labels from made-up products. The Apple logo is less distracting then, say, a glowing pear– or any obvious Apple rip-off.

Dexter probably made deals with Apple and Hewlett-Packard because their products– their computers– can be seamlessly inserted into the show. They need to have computers in the police department, so why not make them Macs or HPs? These product placements may not be as noticeable or memorable, but they are also less disruptive than more egregious product placements. I’m not sure if they make a large impression on the viewer, but they at least refresh your conscious of these products and their logos.

The “more egregious” product placements I am referring to are those that have a strong, active presence in the actual narrative. The focus of the frame might be devoted to a product and its logo. Specific commercial products might play a role in the development of a plot. Occasionally, and most annoyingly in my opinion, the actors themselves will reference a specific product. In these cases, the line between narrative program and commercial is completely blurred.

In one scene, the licentious lab guy Masuka (bald, on the left) asks around the department for someone to go with him to a bar to blow off some steam after work. Detective Batista (hatted, on the right) obliges.

“You know what, Vince. I could use a Cuervo– or ten.”

The scene is incidental to the plot, and the alluded Cuervo-drinking marathon is not shown. The moment is purposeless if not for the reference to Jose Cuervo tequila. Dexter does sometimes have scenes set in a bar or club, and I’ve seen the Jose Cuervo logo featured in shots before. Perhaps the product was mentioned because there was no other opportunity to include it in this episode.

I recognize how unnecessary the reference is and am therefore turned off by this type of product integration. However, I am more likely to recall the appearance of Jose Cuervo in this episode in some form or another over the Doritos passively featured in a previously described scene. Effective? Maybe. Obnoxious? Definitely.

But it doesn’t end there…

During a morning roll in the sack, Debra, Dexter’s sister and co-worker, engages in some pseudo-witty banter with her boyfriend Anton. Anton “comes up for air” (if you catch my drift…) to ask Debra a question:

“Hey um, do you think you can TiVo Jon Stewart for me?”

Because what better way to set the mood than to talk about electronic devices and political satire? Debra playfully responds:

“You’re thinking about Jon Stewart, huh?”

I would be more concerned, maybe insulted, if I were her. But to each his (or her) own. Anton explains:

“Well he is handsome– and funny.”

Completely unexpected. Completely uncalled for. Completely irrelevant to anything going on in the show. And Showtime scores not one, but two product placements in one fell swoop. I can see why Showtime would offer the commercial-crushing TiVo ad-space: they don’t run commercials during their programs. TiVo isn’t much of a threat to Showtime– though it is to other networks owned by National Amusements within the CBS Corporation and Viacom conglomerates.

The random show of support for Jon Stewart, a cable personality completely unrelated to anything associated with Dexter, is more puzzling. But it’s not so surprising after a little investigating. Stewart hosts The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, which airs on the cable TV network Comedy Central, which is controlled by Viacom Inc., which is owned by National Amusements, which also owns the CBS Corporation, which controls the Showtime network, which produces and broadcasts Dexter. It’s cross-promotion at its most self-indulgent, and casual viewers will not make the connection.

Personally, I feel less inclined to watch either The Daily Show OR Dexter after this sort of eye-rolling power play from National Amusements. Then again, I was reminded of Jon Stewart while watching the scene and remembered the endorsement after the fact: the mention has a high recall value. Is it effective? Probably. Is it obnoxious? And then some.

But none of this compares to the “iPod saga” that continued throughout the episode. Astor, Dexter’s step-daughter, is scolded by her mother/Dexter’s wife Rita several times for playing her music too loud.

“If I had an iPod, you wouldn’t have to listen to my stuff.”

Astor baits the hook (and plugs the iPod). Rita doesn’t bite (but she does plug the iPod again):

“If you want an iPod– earn one!”

Later, Astor’s loud music wakes up Rita and Dexter’s newborn son Harrison. Rita isn’t pleased.

“This is not how you go about getting an iPod!”

Rita punishes her daughter by making her responsible for putting the baby back to bed (parenting at its finest on the Showtime network).

Astor takes Harrison and makes her way out of the frame:

“You’d like an iPod, wouldn’t you, little Harrison?”

Dexter isn’t the most astute when it comes to parenting skills. He wonders:

“Why not just end the terror and give her an iPod?”

I say how about just end the terror and stop talking about iPods already! Apple’s iPod gets five mentions in the script from three different actors, plus its own side-plot to boot. It’s not “product integration” at this point: it’s product domination. The writers are trying to show that Astor is growing up and starting to get into expected adolescent arguments with her caretakers. But why does it have to feature an iPod? What’s more, the solution to the conflict isn’t entirely though-out, either. Surely there are other ways to silence the cacophony of pre-teen pop music. How about tell her to turn the music down? Or tell her to use headphones?

From a marketing standpoint, I think this is the most effective type of product integration: where actors essentially become spokespeople for a product. The iPod is desired by Astor. Rita acknowledges that it’s a special item– not something given to disorderly daughters. Dexter sees it as the solution to stress within the family unit. The iPod wouldn’t just please Astor: it would bring peace to the entire house.

Personally, this type of product placement makes me wretch. I would rather have an advertisement pop up in the corner of the screen, or cut to a commercial in the middle of a scene. It completely dispels the momentum of the narrative and impedes the escapist fictional intrigue of the show. I would feel compelled to cancel any subscription to Showtime if I weren’t afforded free access as a media critic.

Product placement is a necessary evil, but it really rubs me the wrong way. If film and television is seen as an art form, then a product placement is an Apple logo painted onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or a Doritos bag carved into the hands of the statue of David. As a creator and appreciator of art, I find it offensive.

But many don’t seem nearly as bothered. Are others just as disgusted by blatant product placements as I am? Or am I getting lost in the details here? Or am I more disgruntled because I’m more aware of its presence? Or do most people just not care all that much? I can’t be sure, but I would honestly rather watch more commercials and get rid of product placements entirely. I know this is an impossible proposition, but I can dream, right?

Or maybe I should get my head out of those clouds on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.


~ by Adam Mehring on November 22, 2009.

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