For an egregious example of a silly product placement, look no further than the CW show The Vampire Diaries, where a character actually says "I Bing'd it" of a search online. But believe it or not, product placement can actually be serious and socially conscious.
Take the Fox comedy Raising Hope. Earlier this year, the show's main character, who'd been a teen mom, caught a high school girl in bed with her boyfriend. "I'm gonna show you where this can lead to!" she screeched. "I'm your ghost of teen pregnancy future!"
The vignette that followed was a sort of teen pregnancy Scared Straight! And it was, in a sense, product placement from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
"We met with one of the writers last summer," says Marisa Nightingale, the senior adviser of its entertainment media program. "And they came up with an episode that incorporates some of what we talked about but in the very irreverent, funny tone of the show."
The campaign does not pay for placement. The nonpartisan not-for-profit works to make strategic connections with influential Hollywood gatekeepers, such as Susanne Daniels. She started working with the organization back when she was in charge of programming for the WB network. Daniels admits she was skeptical at first about letting a nonprofit work with her show runners and writers.
"There's always a hesitation of, 'Is this going to somehow tarnish the organic nature of the development,' " she says. "But that didn't happen at all. In the case of the campaign, I think it only enhanced the programming."
Daniels now sits on the campaign's board. One of her former employees, TV executive Gina Girolamo, works with the group as well. She's now in charge of more than a dozen teen-oriented shows, including Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.
"They're on the ground in a way that none of us are," Girolamo says of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Girolamo became involved with the organization in the 1990s, when she was a young producer focus-grouping kids about TV shows.
"These teenagers specifically said, 'Well no one on TV uses condoms,' " she recalls. "And I remember thinking, 'Wow. We really need to do a better job of representing life.' "
Girolamo says this nonprofit gained traction in Hollywood not just because it's generous with its research and statistics, but also because it never, ever tries to dictate story lines or dialogue. As a result, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy has worked with hundreds of shows over the past 16 years. It helped with Glee's first-season story line about a pregnant cheerleader.
"We sent a bunch of stuff about what it's like for a pregnant teenage girl to walk down a school hallway," says Marisa Nightingale.
Nightingale contributed to a story line on the show Parenthood about a teenage girl's decision to have sex. She helped make sure it showed realistic conversations between parents and kids, complete with false starts and missteps. In one episode, the daughter lies to her mother about having had sex, and the mother lies about how old she was her first time. The truth comes out, in uncomfortable spurts, and it's not easy for anyone.
"Over the course of subsequent episodes they repaired their relationship, and it was very real and messy," Nightingale says. The idea was to model the kind of discussions parents and kids might have, especially ones that perhaps don't work out as well in the beginning.
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is uniquely well organized and also uniquely positioned. You can imagine it's a lot harder for nonprofits working on poverty, or Lyme disease to integrate their messages into television programming than one that focuses on teenagers and sex.
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