Ad Report Card

Soap Opera

How Pond’s infiltrated The Starter Wife writers’ room.

Miranda Otto (left) and Debra Messing in The Starter Wife

On Thursday night, the USA network will premiere the first installment of The Starter Wife—a six-hour miniseries starring Debra Messing. I have zero interest in this show as a piece of entertainment. (Having watched an advance DVD of the first three hours, I can offer a mini-review: two thumbs up. Up my own eye sockets.) I’m intrigued, however, by the attendant marketing blitzkrieg.

The Starter Wife is “presented by Pond’s,” as all the promos note. This arrangement is a good fit because the series’ plot—a fortysomething woman gets dumped by her husband—aligns nicely with Pond’s new marketing strategy: to make “age defying” skin-care remedies, aimed at women 40 and older. As an exclusive sponsor, Pond’s has done all the usual leveraging. During commercial breaks, the company will run vignettes about real-life women who are “starting over,” and there’s also a Pond’s/The Starter Wife contest giving viewers the chance to win a diamond “right-hand ring.” (Ah yes, that age-old symbol of female independence—which is in no way a fiendish invention of the diamond industry.)

Branded entertainment has been around forever and goes back to the days of the radio soap opera, when the cast of The Guiding Light (which got its start on the radio) shilled for various Procter & Gamble products. Fibber McGee and Molly even had a character who was an S.C. Johnson Wax salesman, and frequently found opportunities to interrupt a scene and extol the product’s virtues. What’s remarkable about The Starter Wife is how intertwined the marketing effort is with the creative effort. Pond’s involvement goes beyond mere sponsorships, ads, and contests. Pond’s identified the project as a good match early on in its development stage and became an underwriter. In exchange for financing, Pond’s was allowed to put its marketing agents in the room with The Starter Wife’s writers during the scripting process.

“We wanted to make sure [Debra Messing’s character] would go through an evolution that would make her a Pond’s woman,” says Doug Scott, executive director of branded content and entertainment for Ogilvy North America. According to Scott, Pond’s money bought it 1) a hand in shaping the story and character arcs; 2) some standard product placement; and 3) a few key “signature moments” in which an on-screen interaction with the Pond’s brand triggers a thought or motivation in a character. (Scott wouldn’t get too specific about these.)

I watched the first half of The Starter Wife with a keen eye out for Pond’s contributions. Initially, I was disappointed. While the first hour saw placements for both BlackBerry and Lafite-Rothschild wine, there was nary a Pond’s product in sight. In the second hour, there was a glancing encounter—but so subtle as to be easily missed. Messing’s character is preparing for her first date after her marriage has broken up. As she looks into the bathroom mirror, she says, “I’m ready. I’m gonna shake things up a little and stop feeling sorry for myself.” Meanwhile, she’s slathering some sort of liquid on her face. Connoisseurs will identify the tube she’s holding as Pond’s Smooth Perfection moisturizer, but the label is mostly concealed by her hand.

In hour three, though, the marketing fury is unleashed. During a dream sequence, Messing is interrogated by a pair of detectives. They point a flashlight in her face and mention “those bags under your eyes.” Cut to Messing, awake, in front of that bathroom mirror again, dabbing some cream on the offending area. The camera lingers on the label as she sets her bottle of Pond’s Age DefEYE down on the counter. This is more than simple product placement—the character is actually using the stuff, and there’s a related line of dialogue. But I’m still not sure if the scene qualifies as one of Scott’s “signature moments.” It could be there’s something more dramatic coming later in the series. Perhaps a hunky young beau will apply a tub of Pond’s Time Rewind wrinkle cream to Messing’s face as he tells her he loves her just the way she is. (As for story arcs, I’ll never know if their resolutions relate to Pond’s—as previously stated, I will gouge out my eyes before watching the final three hours of this thing. I’m serious about this.)

It’s advertising’s constant mission to creep into every corner of our lives. Physical space has been invaded (I can’t take a whiz these days without seeing a print ad over the urinal). Entertainment “news” has been infiltrated (breaking: Lindsay Lohan drank Grey Goose vodka while wearing Dior at the PlayStation 3 launch party!). And creative content has never been immune (James Bond films have long been a series of product shots). The obvious next step was for marketers to co-opt the entire creative process. They no longer come in at the end and wedge their message into the story—they come in at the beginning and mold the story around their message.

Gatorade financed about half of the $10 million production costs of the upcoming movie Gracie, about a teenage girl who plays soccer on a boys’ team. When Gatorade saw the treatment, says director of strategic innovation Dustin Cohn, “we identified elements that fit with our brand: the will to win, the overcoming of obstacles, and the opportunity to support women in sports.” Gatorade made extensive presentations about its brand identity to the scriptwriters, who then went off and came up with some ways to fit Gatorade products into the heart of the story line. If you watch the trailer, you’ll see our heroine Gracie, at a pivotal moment, kick a soccer ball at a Gatorade bottle—thereby proving her killer shot-making accuracy to the guys.

I’ve grown weary of bothering to resist this kind of marketing encroachment. It’s inevitable, and nothing will stop it. It’s only a matter of time before a $100 million film gets completely underwritten by some major brand. Still, seeing a ham-handed product insertion in a creative work will always bum me out.

But take heart, those of you who despise this trend. There may be limits to how fully a brand can enmesh itself in content. Bud.TV (“considered the first marketer-created, multichannel online television network,” according to Ad Age) was an effort to produce and distribute entertainment entirely under the aegis of a retail brand. It posts lots of comedy shorts and bikini videos. And it’s not doing so hot. Which somehow gives me solace.