Pandora’s ‘Glee’ Moment

I have a distracting habit when watching TV. Anytime an actor mentions a brand name as part of the script, I wonder if it’s a product placement. And if so, how much did it cost?

This week, I took action, following the latest episode of “Glee,” which featured what I thought had to be a blatant product push for venture-backed music streamer Pandora.

In the scene, set in the dentist’s office, cheerleader and modestly talented Glee clubber Britney is anticipating an unpleasant session of drilling.  School guidance counselor Emma’s hunky dentist boyfriend (played by John Stamos) offers headphones and a Pandora music stream to help relax. Seemed like an odd interlude for a brand plug.

I emailed Mollie Starr, at the communications team for Pandora, to ask how much the mention cost her company. Her response: “No, we didn’t pay for the ‘Glee’ mention.” Nor, for that matter, was it the only recent mass media reference. Asking around the office, Starr came up with several, including:

The Onion (from August 2010).
Tim Westergren on Colbert (June 23 episode).
• And from the TV game show “Jeopardy,” about a year ago. The sequence—not verbatim—went something like: “The Music Genome Project created a website named after this woman of the box, who had been given music from Apollo.” Answer: “What is Pandora?”

Oakland, Calif.-based Pandora could certainly afford a product placement if it wanted to. The company is flush with venture financing, having raised an undisclosed sum in June in a round led by GGV Capital, about a year after closing a $35 million round led by Greylock Partners.

In fact, Pandora is one of several generously venture-funded and consumer-facing companies that’ve been showing up in scripts, plotlines and lyrics.

Online dating network Zoosk, which has raised about $40 million in VC funding over the last couple of years, got a song called Zoosk Girl by rapper Flo-Rida and T-Pain in a deal that I’m told did have a financial element.

And one might expect to see more mention of Playdom games on ABC, now that the social game maker has been acquired by Disney, the network’s owner. Facebook and Twitter, of course, are omnipresent in pop-culture lexicon.

Still, no wonder network television is suffering on the revenue front if they’re giving away brand name mentions for free.

It used to be, anyone with a candy bar and a checkbook could get a part in the script

In one of the most historic instances, the decision to feature Reese’s Pieces in ET in 1982 catapulted the product-placement craft into the Hollywood mainstream. Sales shot up 65% for Hershey’s; Mars, the maker of M&Ms, had passed on the opportunity.