NEW YORK — Frankie Heck settled into the driver's seat of a new Volkswagen on a recent episode of ABC's "The Middle," caressing the steering wheel as celestial music played. Her face was a mask of such pure pleasure that you almost wanted to avert your eyes.
The gleaming Passat appeared throughout the half hour. Dad Mike found it a comfortable refuge for a nap, daughter Sue studied for driver's ed and the whole family used it as a restaurant by driving around with a bucket of chicken.
Welcome to the world of product "integration" on prime-time television. Advertising within programs has gone beyond the mere placement of soda bottles on the table in front of "American Idol" judges. The Passat didn't just pass by on the street during "The Middle," it was a key part of the comedy's story line.
Public Citizen president Robert Weissman, who has long protested the encroachment of unmarked ads within entertainment programming, called the episode "astounding," and he wasn't being complimentary. Final reviews of consumer attitudes aren't in yet, but ABC and VW considered the placement very effective, illustrating another way to satisfy advertisers who are concerned about the growing number of people watching programs on their DVRs and fast-forwarding through commercials.
Product integration isn't difficult to find. On Thursday's "30 Rock" on NBC, Jenna posed for paparazzi in front of a restaurant, saying, "Make sure you get the 'Outback' sign in the picture or I don't get paid."
In "Desperate Housewives" last year, a woman suspected her husband was cheating. She spied on him with his new Sprint phone, checking through it for missed calls, text messages and calendar items.
Even to the experts at ABC, "The Middle" episode that aired Jan. 18 stretched the concept to an unusual extent.
Frankie, played by Patricia Heaton, was asked by neighbors to back their new Passat from the driveway into the garage because they were going to be away for a week. Enthralled by the vehicle, Frankie instead puts it in her own garage and the Heck family secretly finds ways to enjoy it, driving around together by the end of the week. Throughout the episode, family members show off the car's features such as its sound and navigation systems.
Son Brick pops open the trunk, exposing dozens of books. "It can hold my entire library," he says. "Darn this roomy trunk."
By contrast, their own car is dirty, dented and the driver's side door creaks when it opens.
"It's amazing how one nice thing actually made us a better family," Frankie says. "More compassionate, more considerate. We were in better moods."
The Hecks find out with five minutes' warning that their neighbors are returning home early, and rush to clean garbage out of the car.
The episode's other central story involved Frankie volunteering to help at the Super Bowl (the show is set in Indiana and the Super Bowl is being held in Indianapolis this year). That also worked well for Volkswagen, which used a real commercial break for a sneak preview of an ad they plan to run during the game.
ABC and VW began working on the product integration last spring when they were negotiating an overall deal for advertising this TV season. The example is more valuable than a traditional ad, although neither ABC nor Volkswagen would say how much.
"The Middle" seemed like a perfect venue, said Justin Osborne, Volkswagen's general manager for marketing strategy. Its characters are solid middle class from middle America, for whom a new Passat would be nice enough to want but not so expensive that it's out of reach, he said.
Even though VW worked with ABC, writers had some latitude. Osborne said the scene about the trunk came as a surprise and wasn't something the car company requested.
"We're very into authentic and organic integrations that don't seem too heavy-handed or obvious," he said.
ABC discusses potential integrations with show creators and does not force situations upon them, said Jerry Daniello, the network's senior vice president for integrated marketing. More requests are turned down than approved. Regular, big-ticket advertisers are those considered for integration opportunities, as opposed to one-shot clients, he said.
"We like to do things in a very streamlined, very classy, very strategic and very focused way," Daniello said. "It has to make sense. There's really not much value in seeing a product just placed on the counter."
Some advertisers seek a very seamless integration so that it is almost subliminal. In other cases, such as the "30 Rock" riff on "Outback," networks call attention to the pitch by essentially mocking it. That's an approach Volkswagen will take on IFC later this year, with an in-show ad considered so ridiculous it ends with a fiery crash of a VW into the company logo, Osborne said.
For ABC, however, there's less value in characters that are seen primarily as shills. Network programmers help create fictional worlds and hope viewers can get lost in them. They make the characters less real to viewers at their own peril.
The Writers Guild of America, West has publicly supported proposed federal regulations that would make it more explicit to viewers that they are the targets of advertising by, for example, running a printed message on the screen identifying an advertising pitch.
"People are being advertised to when they don't realize it," Weissman said. "One of the core principles of fair advertising laws is you can't be lied to. You have to know when someone is pitching you."
The proposal, however, has been kicking around for several years with no action, and the trend away from live television viewing would seem to make the Volkswagen episode a harbinger of more things to come.