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What Lessons Did Ads Teach About Life ‘Under The Dome’?

Reality sometimes gets bent in the course of making an advertiser happy

Bullets and sledgehammers couldn’t penetrate the transparent barrier at the center of CBS’ summer hit “Under the Dome.” But commercials did.

The sci-fi drama, which completed its first 13-episode run last night, centers on the town of Chester’s Mill, which is placed under an impenetrable barrier. The residents worry about food and energy supplies as well as sunlight. Thankfully, they seem to have an inexhaustible supply of Microsoft Surface devices and help from a Prius, fueled by electricity rather than gasoline. Whether these financial boosts from Microsoft and Toyota will help save the day is a question best left, we suspect, to the imagination – or the show’s second season.

Advertisers’ ability to enter the world of “Dome” marks a relative coup in the world of product placement. Serialized dramas with supernatural and fantastic elements often spur the interest of die-hard fans. Weaving products into the mix, however, is not always the easiest task. How would producers of ABC’s “Lost” (several of whom are involved with “Under the Dome”) have managed to put a can of Coca-Cola or a Verizon smartphone on the mysterious island at the center of the show? Even the bottled water in “Lost” – an easy place to slap a sponsor’s logo – was given a label associated with the fictional Oceanic airline that delivered the show’s castaways to their fate.

And so it has gone, more or less, with other programs of this ilk: ABC’s “Flash Forward,” NBC’s “The Event,” and so on. To be sure, these programs may have had automobiles and other on-set elements contributed by sponsors – a tried-and-true practice in the TV business. And there have been notable examples of ad pacts bolstering TV’s complex fantasy projects, as anyone who can recall Hayden Panettiere’s cheerleader Claire Bennet getting a Nissan Rogue as a present in NBC’s “Heroes,” Jennifer Garner’s Sydney Bristow being interrupted by Nokia phone tones in ABC’s “Alias” or the characters in Fox’s “Fringe” driving a Nissan Leaf might tell you

Generally speaking, however, this genre of program makes the theory that advertisers love shoving their wares into our favorite programs a touch more difficult to put into practice. With that in mind, here are a few lessons about life in CBS’ captivity drama that marketers taught us well:

*When a strange transparent dome covers your town, all access to Apple and Android products will be suspended immediately: “Under the Dome” characters use Microsoft’s Surface tablet to watch videos and even communicate with each other through the wall s of the dome (which blocks sound as well as physical objects) by scrawling words on the device’s screen and displaying the message to the person on the other side.

Funny, though, that no one in Chester’s Mill seems to have an iPad, given that Apple sold 14.6 million of those gizmos in its third quarter of 2013 alone. And if the “Dome” people’s use of Surface is meant to be emblematic of the nation’s, why did Microsoft recently take a $900 million write down for its Surface RT business? Perhaps the Dome emits signals that alter consumer buying patterns.

 *If a crisis should loom, make sure to charge up the Prius: From the start, “Under the Dome” has made certain to feature a Prius plug-in driven by the program’s ersatz heroine, disgraced journalist Julia Shumway. And in the series’ 11th episode, audiences saw first-hand what Toyota was paying for: a scene in which hero “Barbie” and Dome-attuned teen Joe McAllister pull up to the town clinic in a Prius with injured Shumway in tow (By the way, this isn’t too much of a stretch from the show’s source material. Stephen King’s original book actually mentions characters using a Prius).

More dicey: With “Barbie” being hunted by town residents and Julia’s life in danger, the hero makes certain to tell young Joe to get that Prius plugged in so they can continue to tool around the burg – even though most of the village seems to run on an ever-dwindling supply of propane.

*No matter how much hard liquor you like to drink, it will never, ever carry the label of a known spirits manufacturer: Series villain “Big Jim” Rennie loves to sip brown liquor (which might be odd – in the book, he requests the town ban it). But we never know what kind it is, or whether it is bourbon, whiskey or scotch.

Why?

Well, broadcast networks may have warmed to liquor advertising in recent years – a ban on the stuff had been in place, with a few exceptions, until 2011 – but they try to keep spirits pitches off the air until 11 p.m. or so. While Brown-Forman’s Jack Daniel’s whiskey may flow freely in AMC’s “Mad Men,” CBS and its brethren must keep the mandates of a broader audience in mind: When NBC attempted to get past a ban on liquor advertising in 2001 by showing a spot touting Smirnoff Vodka on “Saturday Night Live” in 2001, the act drew the ire of consumers and advocacy organizations. Only recently have the broadcast nets been able to show liquor ads in late night without raising eyebrows.

The Eye has a similar challenge – or missed opportunity – with its drama “Blue Bloods.” In that Friday-night drama, the Reagan family of cops at the program’s center loves to toss back a few every episode – but a few of what? Until a day comes when broadcasters don’t fear backlash for showing the same liquor advertising in primetime that has intensified on cable networks and local stations since a ban on TV ads was relaxed by spirits makers in 1996, we may never know.

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