Sneaking Up On You

Usually, the delightfully eccentric Kyra Sedgwick is the only thing that captures my attention in the TNT cop drama The Closer. But the other night, something else jumped out and grabbed me by the lapels. Kyra wanted to go after a suspect in something other than a department-issued sedan, so she turned to one of her detectives and asked, “What kind of car do you drive?”

“A Prius,” the staffer responded with dawning horror. “But it is brand new, and I just washed it!”

Nobody denies Kyra anything, and this would be no exception. She commandeered the car. As they pulled out of the station the camera lovingly lingered on the Prius’s distinctively aerodynamic exterior before switching to an interior view. I began to get an uneasy feeling as it panned slowly down the car’s control panel, lingering unsubtly on the “Energy Flow Diagram” in the touch screen. My uneasiness turned to queasiness when they approached the perp, conveniently caught in the act of burying a body, and Kyra urges stealth. The detective responded, “This car has an all battery mode, so we can drive in without making a sound!”

Now I felt dirty. All I wanted was to slurp up a little free entertainment, when without warning, the hour drama I’m watching morphs into an advertisement for Toyota.

“So what?” my wife asked me. “It kind of fit the show, and it’s not like you don’t already know that this is commercial television.”

priusShe had a point. And ever since E.T. the extraterrestrial followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces more than a quarter century go, thereby driving a 65 percent surge in sales of the chocolate-peanut butter treat, paid product placement has become a given in almost every movie and television show.

But somehow this hit me as different. Previously, the advertising pitches began and ended with the “placement.” The product just showed up on screen, nothing more. This was something else. The Prius wasn’t just sitting at the curb, it had been written into a plot in a way designed to emphasize the car’s selling points. These characters we have bonded with were pitching us, playing us for suckers. It wasn’t about the art of making a good TV drama, it was about sales.

And that’s when I realized why it had hit me so wrong. Two times over the years, my wife and I had begun to make friends with another couple, only to discover that the new “friends” were really more interested in pitching us something than getting to know us. The first time, the husband cornered me and tried to sell me satellite TV. The other couple made my wife the target: they wanted to persuade her to convert. On both occasions, the evenings instantly turned to ash and we felt violated, our good will abused.

Now we discover that Facebook, that haven for online “friends,” is actually signing folks up to market products to their buddy networks. “People naturally seek out products and make buying decisions based on recommendations from their friends,” the promotional material for the “Market Lodge” program astutely notes.

Yeah, that’s because they trust their friends, and believe that friends have only their well-being in mind, as opposed to, say, a 10 percent commission on the sale.