Awkward, embarrassing product placement mars Shark Tank

Remember when Laura Linney’s character in The Truman Show reverts to implausibly pitching products because she can’t think of anything else to do, and Jim Carrey’s character Truman says, baffled, “Who are you talking to?!”

That’s what I thought on Friday while watching ABC’s Shark Tank, easily one of the best reality series on television today. In the most awkward product placement I can recall (though I haven’t seen The Biggest Loser in a while), a T-Mobile ad was inserted into the middle of the episode.

During the final pitch, a sweating man trying to sell his fortified mouth spray product–Mark Cuban soon called it out as being “a scam” and “a hustle”–says they’ve produced an infomercial. And that’s when it gets ridiculous.

“I have it on my phone. Since I have a T-Mobile phone, I can just share it on that TV,” he says as the camera fetishizes the phone, zooming in on it. As the icing, we get a camera angle that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the show because it looks like the camera is on the guy’s shoulder, so we can see the phone up close. (I can’t tell if they just had an amazing camera operator or actually stopped filming just to get that angle, or may have done a pick-up shot later.)

Was T-Mobile really happy with that? Especially since some vocal viewers reacted negatively? Or is it worth it because all those people mentioned them, just as I just mentioned them in this story?

Product placement is here to stay, and helps generate revenue to pay for television shows. That’s fine. (I even have it on this site, sort of, with some links, such as to Amazon, giving me a small percentage of any purchase.) But it needs to be organic. If it’s interrupting content, it should be reconsidered. It used to seem jarring for Jeff Probst to offer Mountain Dew or Charmin toilet paper as a prize, but at least that was a prize for a challenge, not a Charmin balloon that floated down and played a video of a bear wiping its ass while a tribe was building its shelter.

Shark Tank itself is already an advertisement. That’s okay, because the very real-life drama makes it compelling and educational television. Yes, the featured businesses or products will likely benefit from the publicity on a broadcast network, and besides the fact that they produce the show itself, we know from a disclaimer that executive producer Mark Burnett and ABC may take a percentage of profits in companies featured. In this case, though, a grab at even more revenue hurt the episode and put a ding in an otherwise flawless series.

Here’s the offending moment, followed by Mark Cuban’s smack-down of the product itself–and the dramatic conclusion.

Survivor San Juan Del Sur's dark cloud is lifted

John Rocker

In its third episode, Survivor San Juan Del Sur improved significantly as John Rocker faced off against an Amazing Race villain. But the Exile Island reward challenge remains a drag on the series.


Why Dick Donato left Big Brother 13

Dick Donato

The Big Brother villain known as "Evel Dick" has finally revealed why he left the show during its 13th season: he learned he was HIV positive.

Also: Dick claims he had no choice but to leave the game.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.