How Advertisers Burrowed Their Way Into Netflix

Analysis: Even the popular video-streaming service may be powerless to halt a decades-old TV-industry practice

House of Cards Season 3

Netflix doesn’t carry advertising, but that hasn’t kept Madison Avenue from carving out new roosts in one of the video-streaming service’s flagship offerings.

Three popular brews crafted by Anheuser-Busch InBev have found their way into the third season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” according to Advertising Age, which also suggested Friday that Samsung products will do the same. The companies aren’t necessarily paying for the privilege. Anheuser’s Shock Top, Budweiser and Stella Artois show up in “Cards” because the brewer made the beverages available for the series’ prop masters and set designers, an Anheuser executive told the publication.

Netflix is arguably one of the leading forces in a new kind of television, but even the distributor of “Orange Is the New Black”  can’t avoid one of the medium’s oldest advertising arrangements. For decades, marketers have tapped into a network of prop suppliers, set designers and other production staff at various TV programs to get their products onscreen without being encumbered by costly financial arrangements with TV networks.

A Netflix spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Media Rights Capital, the production company behind “House of Cards,” declined to comment.

You can’t necessarily call the practice product placement, as that technique usually requires some form of payment in exchange for a network or production studio arranging a highly visible onscreen cameo by a can of soda, new model of car or hot handheld gadget. Instead, advertisers make their wares readily available for the dressing of sets, and bet that an understated appearance in a show will make a connection with audiences.

The gambit has paid off in the past.  The pivotal appearance of Junior Mints in a 1993 episode of NBC’s “Seinfeld” – fans will recall Kramer is eating the candy while watching surgery when one of the mints slips from his fingers and lands in a patient’s open cavity – is said to have been the result of a product-placement firm, AIM Productions, rushing to secure a treat to fill a specific role in the script. AIM reached out to several candy makers, but Tootsie Roll, maker of Junior Mints, was the one whose consent made the difference.

Even tiny advertisers can make a big splash with the technique. In 2009, Izze, a maker of carbonated fruit beverages, got a bottle of its Sparkling Pomegranate drink into the hands of Katherine Heigl’s character Izzie Stevens on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” and didn’t pay the Walt Disney-owned network a penny to do so. The PepsiCo unit tapped the expertise of Spotlight Entertainment in Hermosa Beach, Calif., a company that gets products on to sets by working with prop masters and others to accomplish the feat.

Supplying name-brand products as props for shows can be a big business. Many producers and showrunners want their programs to seem “real,” so using actual products instead of fictional brands (remember Oceanic Airlines and the bottled water associated with it used in ABC’s “Lost”?) can be quite desirable. Since 1979, Norm Marshall & Associates in Los Angeles has helped place everything from cars made by General Motors to Microsoft’s Xbox onto the sets of TV programs and films. The company was acquired by Corbis, the Bill Gates-owned company that licenses rights to photography and footage, in 2012.

While Amazon and Netflix do not insert commercials into the streams of the movies and TV shows they offer, there’s clearly an appetite for such stuff – especially as more consumers use such services to watch programming that might once have appeared only on a certain day at a certain time on an old-school television. Hulu, owned by Walt Disney, Comcast’s NBCUniversal and 21st Century Fox, regularly runs ads alongside its video selections. Earlier this year Amazon denied a report that it might be readying an ad-supported TV and music-video service.

Netflix may distribute video with a new method that once was just a gleam in a futurist’s eye, but the programs it beams across the digisphere are made the old-fashioned way. Until producers can figure out how to make a TV series without human beings behind the scenes, the video-streaming service may have to work harder to bar advertisers trying to get in its back door.