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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.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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