One of the touches that made the Supernatural sitcom parody (see below) better and sharper than most was the brief shot of the products inside the refrigerator: it was all generic products, with a ketchup bottle marked “Tomato Ketchup” and so on. Sitcoms are not the only shows that use generic products instead of real ones, but it seems like the most obvious examples are shows like The Big Bang Theory where characters drink from cans marked “Cola,” or Disney Channel type shows like Hannah Montana, where nobody is ever allowed to use anything real, play a real song, or basically pay for anything. (One of the great educational aspects of TV is what it teaches us about trademark law; the prop people on these shows know just how much they have to change a logo before they’re no longer infringing on a company’s trademark.) Other shows either try to have real products, or just shoot and light everything in such a way that labels are not clearly visible.
One thing to note about the generic products vs. real products issue is that it’s another example of how movies and TV use different rules. In movies, the question is usually not whether the movie will use real products, but how blatant and obvious the use will be; “product placement” is a pejorative term in movies and has been for a long time. But most TV is advertiser-supported, so the networks naturally want a show to be free of any references to products or brands that might conflict with the commercials (you don’t want to see the characters drinking one kind of beer, followed immediately by a commercial for another kind of beer). Seinfeld was one of several shows that helped to break the networks’ resistance to real cereals, real chocolate syrup (Bosco!) etc.
And there are some shows that simply could not work if they were not allowed to mention real stuff. Mad Men, which had its season finale tonight, needs to be able to show and mention real products from the early ’60s; the show couldn’t create an accurate sense of period otherwise, and it certainly couldn’t portray life in an ad agency. Of course there is probably a certain amount of product placement involved here, but the purpose is not to make extra money; they have to do it. But there are still plenty of shows where people are using products from, as The Simpsons once put it, “Panaphonic, Magnetbox and Sorny.”
While I’m on the subject of Mad Men, the season finale made it official: Matt Weiner has given himself a writing credit on twelve of the thirteen episodes in the third season. The first season had the fewest Weiner writing credits (there were six episodes he didn’t have his name on after “written by”), which, again, is a reversal of the usual pattern; normally the creator has the most credits in the first season, and fewer as the show goes on and he trusts his staff more.