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The Donald excels at marketing Trump card

A correction was made to this article on Mar. 22, 2006.

THE WORD “TRUMP” is synonymous with many things. It’s the corporate logo of a real estate empire stretching from Atlantic City to South Korea. And it’s the name of America’s most beloved business autocrat, the man who once filed a trademark application for the phrase, “You’re fired,” and who is now hosting the fifth season of “The Apprentice.”

In advertising parlance, “trump” is also a useful term for the unusual product placement method that Trump and producer Mark Burnett concocted for “The Apprentice.”

Virtually every episode of the show is a marketing case study woven around a competition to trump-et the virtues of some new snack food, automobile or cosmetic product. The show is an hour of Madison Avenue trumpery thinly disguised as the dog-eat-dog antics of two squabbling teams of Trump wannabes.

So far this season, we’ve watched teams Synergy and Gold Rush attempt to plan a GM corporate retreat to launch the 2007 Chevy Tahoe; mount a text-messaging campaign for the Gillette Fusion razor; and in Monday night’s episode, design a billboard for a new cereal, Post Grape Nuts Trail Mix Crunch.

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THE TRUMP MODEL of brand integration is a significant twist on most reality shows. Contestants on “Survivor” may chug Mountain Dew, but in “The Apprentice” brands are so prominent a part of the show’s narrative fabric, you half expect them to get a residual check if the series ever goes into syndication.

Since subtlety isn’t in the Trump lexicon, the brands that pay up to $4 million to be a guest star on “The Apprentice” can also generally count on a good, old-fashioned celebrity endorsement from the show’s ebullient host.

“The Gillette Company has been making the finest shaving products for over 100 years. I use ’em, I love ’em, they’re the best,” Trump announced with a volpine smile in the March 1Gillette episode.

The trend in brand integration these days, some advertisers say, is away from such ostentatious plugs and toward more insidious roles in scripted dramas and comedies.

On a recent episode of “The Office,” for example, Steve Carell’s character repeatedly modeled a new pair of Levi jeans to his colleagues, thanks to a deal between NBC and Levi’s. (The deal was first reported in the New York Times.)

The producers of “Desperate Housewives” have prevented that show from becoming a sea of corporate logos. Sunday night’s broadcast (a repeat from earlier in the season), offered few obvious plugs — until the final five minutes, which culminated in a hectic fender bender that left steam rising from the Volvo driven by Felicity Huffman, and a dead body exposed in the dented trunk of her neighbor’s car. Before anybody had time to react, ABC cut to a commercial for Progressive car insurance.

AT A TIME when the WGA West, is stepping up its resistance to product placement (a union Web site, productinvasion.com, is running a parody of “America’s Next Top Model,” in which a Tyra Banks imitator wears a Nike swoosh on her forehead), Trump and Burnett can lay claim to the title of primetime TV’s most vociferous schills.

Nielsen Media Research has just reported that “The Contender” had the most product placements of any show last year (7,502), followed by “The Apprentice,” which had less than half as many.

But the Trump touch may not quite as effective as it used to be. Ratings for “The Apprentice” have steadily declined since the show’s first season, whose final episode was watched by 40 million people. This season’s “Apprentice” debut was watched by just 9.7 million viewers, fewer than turned out for the first episode of any previous “Apprentice.”

That’s cause for concern among the brands that have been lining up for Trump’s endorsement. “The Apprentice,” Michael Yudin, managing director of Carat Entertainment, told me, “is running its course, as everything does. We don’t know what the next thing is.”

Mind you, one should never underestimate the resiliency of Trump’s Hollywood career, which has included cameos in everything from “Zoolander” to “The Simpsons,” or the resiliency of the Trump trademark, which has been slapped on everything from bottled water to airplanes.

As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz once put it, Trump is “a master at finding the media’s G spot.” The Donald couldn’t have said it better himself.

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