HBO and product placement: strictly pro bono

Over at Business Week, columnist Jon Fine is noting the plethora of supposed product placements on the new ‘Sopranos’ season. HBO, however, denies that any sponsored placement is taking place. On the other hand, it’s been acknowledged that the Prius placement in the last scene of the last-ever episode of ‘Six Feet Under’ was coordinated with Toyota, although– and this is important– not paid for.

Anyway, I’m glad HBO is holding the line against paid product placements. But it raises an interesting social and aesthetic issue: a) people in contemporary America have emotional connections to brands; b) most characters in television shows are supposed to be people in contemporary America; c) the presence of branded products in television shows can sometimes therefore be a creative character development choice rather than a paid-product-placement arrangement.

Does that mean it can sometimes be both? Probably not, but it’s worth pondering, especially if the upfronts are weak this year.