‘Breaking Bad’: Product Placement and “Quality” Television

“Layered, like nachos. Exponential growth. That’s success, with a capital S.” —Jesse Pinkman

Anyone who has been watching television lately, be it broadcast or cable, has probably noticed the growing trend of advertising through product placement. According to Nielsen Research, there were 4,896 instances of product placement on primetime broadcast television alone in 2009, and in 2010 that number rose to 9,227, which doesn’t even account for the increasing prevalence of product placement on basic cable.

Despite the rapid growth of product placement all over the dial, academic research on the subject has mostly been focused on reality television and other genres that have historically been dismissed as “low” forms of culture. Suspiciously absent from the conversation has been a look at product placement in so-called “quality” television, especially the sacred cow of serialized drama. 10 years ago, when most television being canonized as “quality” was on pay cable (where there generally isn’t product placement), this approach may have been tenable. Today, with basic cable channels like AMC, FX, and TNT a part of the conversation, this approach is in need of revision.

To be fair, academics and journalists have directed some attention to product placement in series that have been classified as “quality” television, but it has almost exclusively been directed at comedic programming such as 30 Rock, Archer, and The Colbert Report. These programs, in the tradition of Wayne’s World, often satirize product placement while simultaneously taking part in its practice. Much has also been written about the use of product integration on Mad Men, which is all about advertising and features corporate pitch meetings as a recurrent narrative device. Still, for the most part, dramatic series that have been canonized as quality television have been unexplored by critics and scholars when it comes to their use of product placement.

Of course, having been used by critics to describe series as disparate as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and Hill Street Blues, the definition of quality television has never been particularly stable. I will apply the term as it has been most recently deployed: to describe television shows with serialized narratives and “cinematic” visual styles. In this post, the quality television program I will be examining is Breaking Bad, a serialized drama that began airing on AMC in 2008 and is currently ending its run with eight final episodes that began broadcast beginning on August 11, 2013.

The opening four shots of the pilot episode of Breaking Bad

“They say the color is blue, and the quality is pure.” —Los Cuates de Sinaloa

The first images viewers saw when Breaking Bad premiered were decidedly abstract: cacti, two desert mountains being engulfed in shadow, and a pair of pants slowly floating to the earth. When the Winnebago finally roars into frame at the end of the fourth shot, viewers were still deprived of important narrative context that wouldn’t be made clear until much later in the episode. This was the first of the many enigmatic “cold opens” for the series, which scholar David Lavery calls the show’s “most emphatic, most distinctive signature…[which] demand we be seated and in place the second a Breaking Bad begins.” These teasers function as a way of immediately establishing the program’s “cinematic” style, which has also been emphasized in paratextual discourse around the show. In a 2011 interview with Collider, for example, series creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan asserted the show’s commitment to the photochemical process, calling it “one of the last shows probably ever in history to shoot on film.” In another interview, Gilligan claimed that Breaking Bad “feels very unlike what you typically see on television,” continuing a pattern of framing the show as superior to and unlike other television programs.

Even when AMC was engaging in the plainly commercial enterprise of exchanging advertising time for the promotion of Breaking Bad on cans of Jolt, the network’s publicity about the move traded on the show’s reputation as quality television. When AMC’s Vice President for Activation and Promotion announced the deal, she made sure to put it in the context of Breaking Bad being “edgy” and “[pushing] the envelope.” When this cross-promotion was announced on the AMC Breaking Bad blog, another detail was emphasized that continued to frame the program as unique: it marked the first time Jolt had incorporated a third party’s promotion on its can design.

Season two poster artwork for the series

“What, like a Winnebago?” —Jesse Pinkman

During the first three seasons of Breaking Bad, actual brands were used on screen, ranging from major retail outlets like Office Depot to the Albuquerque restaurant Venezia’s Pizza, but the series didn’t strike any paid product placement deals. According to Vince Gilligan on the DVD commentary for the second season episode “ABQ,” the use of actual brands was an issue of realism. “People actually eat Cheerios in real life,” he says, “so let’s have a box of Cheerios versus [a generic brand like] Oleos.”

The lack of paid product integration during this period was likely caused by the program’s subject matter rather than official policy, as it had been with David Chase and The Sopranos (although even that series accepted the “free use of cars and other goods”). During the show’s first hiatus, production designer Robb Wilson King wrote a profile of the series that observed that “because of the subject matter, product placement has been very problematic.” This suggests that as early as the first season, AMC and Sony had been unsuccessfully trying to introduce product placement to the show. That potential corporations were deterred from entering into product placement deals isn’t hard to believe. After all, when The New York Times called the show’s premise “forbiddingly grim” in 2011, it wasn’t a new or unique observation. To put it another way, if Mad Men is “an oddball crime show primarily concerned with misdemeanors,” as David Marc puts it,1 then Breaking Bad is an oddball crime show primarily concerned with felonies.

No doubt this harsh subject matter was often in the way of what would have otherwise been prime candidates for product placement. The Winnebago, for example, was not only regularly referred to by its brand name, but was a key part of the show’s print advertising in its first two seasons. Vince Gilligan even called the vehicle “emblematic of the show” in a 2011 interview. There’s just one problem from an advertising perspective: for the three seasons it appeared on the program, the Winnebago’s main narrative function was to be a mobile meth lab. And although corporations have been perfectly comfortable integrating their products into film and television depicting criminal acts, they are uncomfortable having their products involved in the perpetration of criminal acts on-screen.2

“I’ve done a terrible thing. But I’ve done it for a good reason. I did it for us.” —Walter White

Starting with the fourth season of Breaking Bad, both AMC and Sony became more aggressive in their pursuit of product placement deals, approaching the writing staff early in the writing process and asking them to consider places where product placement would work.3 Product placement has been of particular interest to AMC: not long after the network approached the Breaking Bad staff, AMC’s desire for further (and more transparent) product placement on Mad Men became the flashpoint of a contentious contract negotiation with executive producer Matthew Weiner. AMC wanted advertisers to be able to publicize product placement immediately after an episode was broadcast; beforehand the deal between Lionsgate and AMC forced advertisers to wait until the end of each season to do so. A few months after that public contract fight was resolved, AMC’s quest to further product placement made the news again when the network decided to reject an offer from Microsoft to incorporate the Bing search engine into the second season of The Walking Dead. Though the network couldn’t figure out how to work the internet into the show’s post-apocalyptic premise, it did accept product placement from several other companies.

Vince Gilligan and the writing staff of Breaking Bad were understandably nervous about the use of product placement, and have used official paratexts like the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast to defend the practice. Hosted on the AMC website and released each week to coincide with the latest episode of the series, the podcast features series creator Vince Gilligan, film editor Kelly Dixon, and a revolving door of cast and crew members who discuss the series and its production. Unlike more formal podcasts, like Ronald D. Moore’s podcast for Battlestar Galactica, the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast is not an audio commentary to be played along with the episode.4 As a result, the episodes vary in length from week to week and the tone is more casual, with discussions that are often only tangentially related to the series.

The staff’s nervousness about product placement is particularly evident in the podcast for “Problem Dog,” episode 407, which prominently features the two product placement deals in the fourth season. In that recording, Gilligan leads a conversation about the show’s philosophy of product placement and defends its use. First, the group makes it clear that the show’s producers went looking for potential product placements only when they fit the story that had already been written. One of the participants explains, “Vince is very clear that we don’t do product placement for the sake of doing product placement. It has to serve the story.”5 Second, the group explains that if they had been unable to secure a promotional consideration fee for the product placements in question, they would have used those products anyway. Third—and Gilligan is sure to stress this point—the budget for each episode is so tight that the fees collected for product placement only serve to “make the show a better show.”6

The second point, in particular, is debatable. Although it seems probable that the producers would have included a scene in which Jesse plays a violent video game in “Problem Dog,” I think it’s unlikely the show would have featured game play footage from Rage so prominently (it is seen for nearly two minutes) if a deal had not been reached with the game’s publisher, Id Software. Other shots, like a lingering close-up of the game’s packaging, seem to have little story relevance, and are unlike other scenes in the series of Jesse playing video games that are not product placement.

The product placement deal between Sony, AMC, and Id Software presents an interesting case of trying to emphasize the show’s aura of uniqueness. According to the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, not only was the video game Rage integrated in the show, but the producers collaborated with Id Software to incorporate at least one Breaking Bad easter egg (a secret item hidden within a video game for devoted players to discover) in the game itself. Rather than present the product placement deal with Id Software as an example of crass commercialism (or even simply a way of helping the budget), the producers frame it as a unique collaboration between two creative parties. The producers of Breaking Bad use the “Problem Dog” podcast to make other overtures to serious gamers as well, perhaps conscious of the way video games have often been incorrectly presented in film and television as part of product placement deals in the past. Writer and director Peter Gould assures his listeners that he borrowed an Xbox and played several games to prepare for the episode. He also points out that “it’s very rare that have a gun controller,” like the one that appears in the episode, presenting himself as familiar with information only serious gamers would know.7

Although online gamers picked up on the easter egg in Rage, offering walkthroughs to find it, the overall response from gamers to the product placement appears to have been quite negative. Some complained that video games have only been enjoyed by Jesse and his meth addict friends on the show, drawing unwanted associations between video games and drug use. Others argued that by intercutting game play footage with a murder Jesse had committed in an earlier episode, the show was drawing an unfair comparison between actual violence and violent video games. Others still complained that Rage isn’t compatible with a light gun controller as depicted in the episode.

The other product placement in the fourth season of Breaking Bad was for Dodge to display their latest Challenger sports car in the episodes “Cornered” and “Problem Dog” (this product placement appears to have been extended to the initial episodes of season five, which aired in 2012 as well). In the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, several participants express surprise that they were able to secure this deal, since the car’s plotline ends when Walt drives the vehicle into a ditch, covers it in gasoline, and quietly watches while it burns and then explodes. Other paratexts, however, suggest this was not a concern for Dodge. In fact, Red Line Dodge, which bills itself as “the official blog of Dodge,” reveled in the “exciting action” of the car’s demise in one blog post. In another, however, the company’s concern for the show’s portrayal of criminal behavior are revealed. The blog post downplays Walter White’s criminal activity while emphasizing his status as a father, saying, “while Walter White…may have an unconventional career path, he’s still a loving father. That’s probably why he purchased his teenage son a V6 equipped model that offers great standard safety features, good gas mileage, and sporty performance.” The official AMC blog for Breaking Bad also attempted to distance Dodge from the drug dealers depicted in the show, posting an interview with RJ Mitte where the actor is asked, “What do you think of Walt Jr.’s selection of the Dodge Challenger?” Ready to answer, Mitte replies, “I think he has great taste in cars. I love it. It’s everyone’s dream car pretty much.”

“Done. You understand?” —Jesse Pinkman

Breaking Bad began airing its eight final episodes on August 11. It remains to be seen if the series will embrace additional product placement in its final hours. As Breaking Bad heads towards at least one likely grim conclusion (the death of Walter White, either from cancer or unnatural causes), the dark subject matter will most likely continue to be an obstacle for Sony and AMC in securing product placements.

It also remains to be seen how columnists and scholars will discuss the place of product placement in the legacy of Breaking Bad. I suspect that most critics, as they have in the past, will either ignore or only give passing mention to the existence of product placement on the program (and the efforts of the producers, the studio, and the network to defend the practice in official paratexts). If this does turn out to be the case, critics will be missing out on an important site for dialogue about commercial television and what sets the standard for “quality.” Judging from Metacritic’s aggregate of 45 top ten television series lists from 2012, Breaking Bad is far from the only quality program on the air today to embrace product placement (at least 12 of the 20 programs on the list use some degree of product placement). Hopefully, the prism of quality television (if it is to be kept in critical analysis) will soon cease to be a barrier to discussing the pervasive reality of product placement in television.


NOTES

1. ^ David Marc, “Mad Men: A Roots Tale of the Information Age,” in Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, ed. Gary R. Edgerton (London: I.B. Taurus, 2011), 228.

2. ^ Mary-Lou Galician and Peter G. Bourdeau, “The Evolution of Product Placements in Hollywood Cinema: Embedding High-Involvement ‘Heroic’ Brand Images,” in Handbook of Product Placement in the Mass Media, ed. Mary-Lou Galician (Binghamton, NY: Best Business Books, 2004), 27-28.

3. ^ Kelly Dixon, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren, and Melissa Bernstein, Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 407, 30 August 2011, <http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad/insider-podcast-season-4>

4. ^ For an analysis of Ronald D. Moore’s use of the podcast commentary on Battlestar Galactica, see Derek Kompare, “More ‘Moments of Television:’ Online cult television and authorship,” Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, ed. Michael Kackman, Marnie Binfield, Matthew Thomas Payne, Allison Perlman, and Bryan Sebok (New York: Routledge, 2011), 95-113.

5. ^ Kelly Dixon, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren, and Melissa Bernstein, Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 407, 30 August 2011, <http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad/insider-podcast-season-4>

6. ^ Kelly Dixon, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren, and Melissa Bernstein, Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 407, 30 August 2011, <http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad/insider-podcast-season-4>

7. ^ Kelly Dixon, Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren, and Melissa Bernstein, Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, Episode 407, 30 August 2011, <http://www.amctv.com/shows/breaking-bad/insider-podcast-season-4>


Author bio:

Michael Kmet received a B.S. in Cinema and Photography and a B.A. in 
Politics at Ithaca College, and an M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at 
UCLA. His research interests include early American science fiction
 television, audio-visual film and television marketing, product
 integration strategies for “Quality TV,” and developing digital 
teaching tools for cinema and media studies.

4 thoughts on “‘Breaking Bad’: Product Placement and “Quality” Television

  1. I found this piece interesting and insightful, but I also feel that there is an assumption that lies at the heart of the analysis that is never properly addressed – i.e. that product placement is inherently bad news and we should be worried about its presence both in ‘quality’ TV and elsewhere. In what way is product placement being understood as negative or undesirable? Is it an aesthetic argument that says that product placement undermines artistic integrity or pulls the viewer out of the diegesis? Or is it based on a more theoretical audience-effect model that sees product placement as a particularly pernicious and sneaky form of advertising that blurs the audience’s perception of what is art and what is commerce (or something along these lines)?

    I don’t have much interest in the latter option, it not being my field of inquiry, but if it’s the former then I think that the question of whether product placement is problematic or not has to be taken on a case-by-case and scene-by-scene basis. While I agree that one should be instinctively cynical when programme creators claim that their particular use of product placement does not detract from the story, or that they would have used those products regardless of payment, I also think we shouldn’t just accept that such practices always have a negative effect. The fact that the author points out that the RAGE game cannot be played with a light-gun (as Jesse does in the episode) would seem to indicate that the placement is in service of the artistic purpose of the scene, rather than the other way round.

    As for the Dodge product placement I think there is good reason to argue that since Walt Jr. has spent the past three seasons talking about getting a car it was pretty much inevitable he would get one at some point. The flashiness of the car, and its disconnect from the official White family narrative (illegal gambling, car wash owners, etc), is used to further understanding of the selfishness of Walt and the discipline and intelligence of Skyler, who suffers her son’s displeasure when she makes Walt take the car back. In season 5 the car once again is integrated into the development of Walt’s character, when he chooses to give up his old, unexciting Pontiac Aztec in favour of a Dodge, indicating both his growing sense of hubris and recklessness, along with his desire to finally get some pleasure out of being a meth kingpin.

    While I am fully aware that there are many shows where product placement does harm the artistic side of the production, I don’t believe that it absolutely must be so. I actually think Breaking Bad’s use of product placement is minimally disruptive to the narrative and aesthetic construction of the show, and to me the integrity of the text seems to be the overriding reason to worry about such placement.

    Maybe I’m reading too much into this, and obviously I’m late to the party anyway, but I was curious whether other people (including the author) feel that product placement is a problem in whatever context it appears, and if so why?

    • Hi Daniel (apologies for taking my time to reply). I think your suggestion that we shouldn’t just assume that product placement has a negative effect, but rather evaluate it on a case-by-case basis, is a sound one.

      Really, my point was to highlight the fact that product placement exists on these programs, and shouldn’t be ignored, not to universally demonize the practice.

      My initial thoughts on the way BREAKING BAD approached product placement are mixed. The point that the RAGE placement violated the gameplay mechanics to better develop Jesse’s character is well taken. On the other hand, the way the camera lingers on the videogame’s cover art, and the duration of the gameplay footage in the episode strikes me as narrative disruptions that wouldn’t have occurred if the production hadn’t made a product placement deal.

      I’m still developing my thoughts on this and would also be interested to hear from others. If anyone is interested, I’ll be presenting a revision/expansion of these ideas at SCMS this year.

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