“Enough with the blatant sucking up... let’s get to the blatant shilling!”A plug is where a work or individual mentions a product in order to promote it. An Enforced Plug is a plug that is very obviously contractually required. As such, an Enforced Plug will usually be delivered awkwardly or ham-handedly; it tends to kill the show’s momentum (and the viewer’s mood). They’re often delivered at the end of the show or after a very obvious segue. The actors try their best but for the life of them can’t sound genuine in their enthusiasm for the product. The writers might actively resent having to write the plug and try to make it as ridiculous as possible. Parodies are common, but they can run afoul of a variant of Poe's Law; actual Enforced Plugs are often so ridiculous that you can’t tell if it’s a parody or not. This was a ubiquitous practice in the Golden Age of Radio Drama. It was also common in the earliest generation of TV shows, many of which had started on radio. These days, it serves as one of many ways to conduct Viral Marketing. The plug can be for a sponsor’s product, or a product offered by the show’s producer, which can include tie-in merchandise, theme parks, or other shows. A subtrope of Product Placement and a supertrope of Product Promotion Parade. Compare The Shill and Now Buy the Merchandise.
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Live Action TV
- When King’s Island Amusement Park first opened in Cincinnati in 1973, several shows started plugging it. The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family each had episodes that amounted to 30-minute plugs for the park. And a few episodes of Let's Make a Deal offered a trip to Cincinnati as a prize, alongside daily passes and concession stand vouchers for the park (which was, at the time, really the only reason to visit Cincinnati).
- MythBusters would do this in commercial break bumpers in later seasons, including short segments where they bust myths like “the new Jetta Foobar Turbo is smelly and noisy because it’s a diesel.”
- X-Play tends to plug an online game rental store numerous times during each show. They try to mix it up to keep it interesting, but after the first hundred times, it’s grown very thin.
- Call-in voting for talent shows always mentions what telephone company is sponsoring the phone lines.
- Most home improvement shows are sponsored by a national hardware store chain (such as Sears for Extreme Makeover: Home Edition), and the hosts will always find a way to show that all the tools they’re using to remodel and restock the house are from that chain of stores. They’re usually not very subtle.
- Burn Notice tends to do this with its cars; it’s very easy to tell which automaker is sponsoring the show at any given moment. It also leads to scenes where the crew uses a super-Hyundai to bust into something and Sam and Fi pause the action to talk about how great a car it is.
- TV shows from The '50s and earlier tended to be extremely blatant with their Enforced Plugs. Most people associate I Love Lucy with this trope; several episodes would have their plots hijacked for several minutes in favor of an infomercial for the sponsor’s product. But that was actually subtle for its time; this episode of The Burns and Allen Show was more typical.
- Eureka was hit badly with Enforced Plugs in its third season. The only way the writers could explain the constant, obvious, jarring references to Degree for Men deodorant was to have the new leader of Global Dynamics reach a sponsorship agreement with the in-universe company that produces the in-universe Degree for Men product.
- Psych has had a few jarring Product Placements. One gets the impression that Shawn Spencer’s writer didn't particularly like advertising Dunkin’ Donuts and did his best to make sure it was jarring, random, and blown off by other characters. This practice escalated in later seasons, mostly with food products and chains like Panda Express, usually lampshaded as a means to pay the bills.
- Bones has been known to do this; characters will frequently pause the action to extol the virtues of whichever car they’re driving, one episode was essentially an episode-long plug for Avatar, and the episode “The Finger in the Nest” infamously shows the characters giving up and asking Cesar Milan, TV’s “Dog Whisperer”, to solve the case for them.
- Smallville is infamous for its product placement, leading to awkward dialogue where every mention of a car or phone is a plug of some kind, and a character is nicknamed “Product Placement Pete” for his frequent delivery of these plugs. Its most infamous episode in this respect is “Hero”, where the aforementioned Pete gains superpowers and goes Ax-Crazy by chewing tainted Stride gum; the plug essentially took over an entire episode, although it didn’t exactly paint the product in a great light.
- ABC is owned by Disney, and many shows aired on the network will spontaneously plug other Disney properties or its theme parks. They would often even force shows’ producers to do what amounts to an episode-long Disneyland infomercial where the characters visit the theme park and have an unreasonably good time. Many shows did this disturbingly straight, like Step by Step, Full House, Family Matters, Modern Family, The Middle — the list goes on.
- On America's Funniest Home Videos, many clips randomly feature Disney character or franchises, and the grand prize is always a trip to a Disney park.
- The producers of Roseanne were forced to do a two-part episode that was essentially a Disneyland infomercial. They didn’t take too kindly to that, and immediately followed it up with "Springtime for David", an episode where one of the characters gets a job at a local theme park who brainwashes him into its army of perpetually happy park mascots. Oh, and there's also Nazi overtones too.
- The Muppet Show had a Disney World episode where Statler and Waldorf complained as they usually do — but about the place having nothing to complain about.
- Sabrina the Teenage Witch did a Disney World episode specifically to promote the opening of Animal Kingdom and its Lodge resort (the latter of which wouldn’t open for another three years).
- The Chew does a yearly taping on location at the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
- Chuck has frequent plugs for sandwich chain Subway; in later seasons, it’s almost Once an Episode, as Subway was instrumental in promoting the show and keeping it on the air. This led to the plugs becoming almost a Running Gag. It was even almost lampshaded in “Chuck vs. the First Kill”, where Morgan is asked to bribe his boss with his “favorite thing” and gets him a Subway chicken teriyaki footlong — but his real favorite thing is just donuts.
- The Nissan Versa in Heroes started out as creative and original product placement, but later cars degenerated into this trope.
- Later episodes of Monk had ridiculous and incongruous plugs. One late episode had the characters investigating a crime in a remote backwoods town but staying at a conveniently located and immaculately-kept motel, which was particularly jarring as this is the classic setting for a Hell Hotel.
- The West Wing pulled it off much more subtly (and hilariously); when asked to do a Thanksgiving-related plug, they had the president call up Butterball's advice line, pretending to be an ordinary citizen.
- Like most other talk shows, The Daily Show frequently sees guests whose purpose on the show is just to promote their latest publication or project, and like most other talk shows, Jon will naturally end each interview by plugging it. Unlike most other talk shows, the more self-aware the guest is about this, the more likely the plug will be lampshaded (and the conversation itself will go Off the Rails).
- One episode of Gilmore Girls was devoted to shilling the Sidekick, a contemporary mobile phone. It was a painfully obvious plug; Rory’s dad buys her a sidekick and spends half the episode going on about how amazing it is and texting her constantly. But since he’s The Scrappy, he was probably the worst possible choice to promote the phone, which had bombed hard by the time the episode aired.
- Men of a Certain Age has Chevrolet as a major sponsor, and the plot of one episode revolved around creating a commercial for Chevrolet’s latest model. It started as a straight plug, but it then devolved into a series of zany viral spots on Terry’s recommendation.
- Several episodes of Shark Tank have plugs for T-Mobile shoehorned in extremely awkwardly, with all the subtlety of a car alarm. See for yourself.
- “The Twilight Zone was brought to you by [product]!” was often heard at the end of the first two seasons of the show. By the time the third season had come around, Rod Serling was shilling Chesterfield Cigarettes (with mild filters, not mildly filtered) to the audience after telling them about next week’s show.
- During the blind auditions, the various international versions of The Voice will often go on location to profile a contestant. When they do this outside the US, the lead-in to these profiles will just be various shots of the contestant and their hometown. In the US, though, it’s mostly shots of Carson Daly’s Kia Sorrento as he drives it to the location. The US version is also taped at Universal Studios Hollywood, and near the end of each season, there’s usually a segment showing the finalists enjoying the park.
- National Geographic’s Brain Games was gradually taken over by plugs for Acura luxury cars. It wasn’t too obnoxious at first and these segments were at least separated from the main show (being placed with the actual commercial breaks), but inevitably, they started creeping into the episodes themselves.
- Home Improvement: Justified example, since the series features a Show Within a Show, Tool Time, sponsored by Binford Tools. In-universe, Tim will stand behind Binford's products, and has no problem promoting them on his Binford Tools sponsored show. However, in one episode, Tim is told to plug a new product that he thinks is terrible, and is torn between his honesty and his obligations. He eventually trashes the tool on-air and even puts his boss on the spot by roping him into it. However, a positive spin is still put on it, by saying that Binford prides itself on making only the highest quality tools, and that when a tool doesn't pass the test, it doesn't go to market. They then proceed to destroy the prototype.
- To somewhat of a lesser extent, in one second-season ep Tim wore a sweatshirt with the logo of ABC's Detroit station WXYZ-TV 7 on it; ABC owned the station until 1986 (having to sell it off due to FCC regulations during the merger with Capital Cities), it's currently owned by Scripps.
- Podcasts will typically plug their sponsor during the show; as on-demand audio programs, there isn’t really a better way to advertise. A huge percentage of such plugs — especially for Leo Laporte’s TWIT network — are for Audible.com, which sells digital downloads of audiobooks (which are likely to appeal to the podcasting crowd). Netflix is another common sponsor, as is longtime TWIT sponsor Squarespace.
- Serial saw MailChimp getting a lot of mileage out of their plug for the email newsletter service, to the point that "#MailKimp"note became a meme among fans (though the archived versions now include ads for Audible instead).
- My Brother, My Brother and Me has gone through a few sponsors at this point, but the longest-running is their partnership with online sex toy shop Extreme Restraints. While enforced, the plugs fit remarkably well with the show’s tone and content, enough that when Extreme Restraints allowed their partnership to lapse, the fans demanded the ads back.
- Bill Burr has a tendency to nitpick and poke fun at his sponsors on the Monday Morning Podcast. The sponsors apparently don't object to this, perhaps understanding what they were in for when they sent an ad copy to Burr. His plug for Shari's Berries (and the hilarious Freudian Slip near the end of it) is one of the most well-known bits from his podcast.
- Enforced Plugs are common on bigger TV events. Between matches, commentators will sloppily segue into a plug for the upcoming Pay-Per-View event, a sponsor’s product, the latest movie starring one of the wrestlers, the WWE Network, whatever. Commentators on independent shows will often employ even sloppier plugs for their upcoming live shows. Like many sports broadcasts, recap or highlight segments will have a sponsor.
- Averted by CM Punk; many fans believe his love of Pepsi is another marketing element, but it’s a real Trademark Favorite Food; he just legitimately loves the stuff.
- Political talk radio shows have become notorious for the awkwardness, suddenness, and ubiquity of their Enforced Plugs. Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh all do it, but the late Paul Harvey was the uncontested king of this. In Limbaugh’s case, it’s particularly annoying since the plugs also reach listeners who’ve signed up for his “Rush 24/7” service to avoid the ads. And it could get hypocritical, too, like when Hannity would criticize the government’s bailout of US automakers and then plug GM cars.
Sports and other live events
- Enforced plugs are endemic on sports telecasts. Pretty much every segment or statistic now has its own sponsor (e.g. “the AFLAC Trivia Question” or “the Jeep Drive of the Game”). Commentators are also frequently made to plug other programs on the same network (perhaps as a way of making use of time already dedicated to station identification).
- Most sports venues now have a sponsor; many newer buildings have no way of referring to them other than the sponsor names, which sometimes makes it awkward to refer to them in casual conversation. Some old venues like Madison Square Garden have sufficiently iconic names that defy this trope, so they sponsor the court or field instead rather than the building itself.
- Many sports teams or athletes will have sponsors advertising on their uniforms. In a few situations, sports teams will go even further and name themselves after the sponsor outright (e.g. the New York Red Bulls or the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters).
- Blatant advertising is particularly prominent in motor racing, where uniforms, vehicles, and tracks are festooned with ads, cameras will go out of their way to film the ads, and the winning driver will shill for his sponsors.
- College football’s post-season games nearly all have sponsors; sometimes they just attach their name to the game (e.g. “the [Sponsor] Fiesta Bowl”), but sometimes the whole game is named after the sponsor (e.g. “the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl”, although these are slowly going out of fashion). Commentators must refer to these games in this format.
- This is becoming an endemic on Youtube, with many Youtubers blatantly Shilling commercial products and websites. One of stated reasons is that sponsorships are paying the bills when ad revenue stop making as much money (due to, say, Youtube changing how video monetization works). When making videos is your career you have to pay bills somehow.
- CollegeHumor has done this, most blatantly with Trojan condoms. One short (an animated Valentine’s Day one starring Cupid) was so egregiously rife with the Product Placement for Trojan that nearly all the comments on the video were complaints about it.
- When Two Best Friends Play tore apart the Xbox One launch title Fighter Within and its Kinect controls, Machinima tacked a 10-second Xbox One ad onto the beginning of the video.
Parodies and In-Universe uses:
- In The Truman Show, the protagonist’s entire waking life is secretly a TV show being produced and filmed in real time. Since there are no commercial breaks, Product Placement is done during the show; this is accomplished by having the actors playing his family and friends delivering plugs in his presence. An inappropriate and out-of-place plug is eventually one of the things that cues Truman in to the fakeness of his life.
- Parodied in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: NBC is covering the climactic race, and it can’t resist showing why it stands for “Nothing But Commercials”. The network cuts to a commercial in the middle of Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard’s cars crashing (followed by an actual Applebee’s ad in the middle of the movie). But even after the race coverage returns, the crash is still happening.
- Kung Pow! Enter the Fist has some blatant and self-referential Taco Bell product placement:
“Oh, Taco Bell, Taco Bell, product placement with Taco Bell. El Chorito, Macho Burrito!”
- In Demolition Man, set 20 Minutes into the Future, Taco Bell is now the only restaurant left in the entire country (and possibly the world). Oddly, when shown outside the U.S., it’s Pizza Hut instead.
- Both Wayne's World films parodied the Product Placement phenomenon. In the first film, Wayne objects to selling himself out while simultaneously showing off a series of real-life products and mugging for the camera. The second film has a similar scene parodying a memetic ad from the 1970s where he randomly and inexplicably extols the virtues of Cassandra’s laundry detergent.
- Halfway through Return of the Killer Tomatoes, the director announces that they don’t have enough money to finish the movie, so the actors suggest that they start doing plugs to get more money. From that point on, the movie is strewn with blatantly obvious advertisements, until the protagonist finally irritably asks, “Do we have enough money to finish this turkey yet?”
- In-universe, The Cat in the Hat, pauses the movie to shill Universal Studios’ theme parks.
- In Evolution, the alien invasion is stopped by Head and Shoulders shampoo, and the film ends with the main characters doing a commercial for the product — but it’s full of Bad "Bad Acting", and one of the characters even holds the bottle backwards.
- Parodied in Bill Anschell’s short story Searching for Glory at the Cookin’ Cadenza, where a simple request horribly misunderstood leads to an incredibly awkward and unintentional Enforced Plug.
- The Thursday Next series has a lot of seemingly out-of-nowhere references to something called the Toast Marketing Board. One Of Our Thursdays Is Missing reveals that this is because when the written Thursday, who “plays” the first-person narrator of the Thursday Next books, briefly visited the real world, she took a big check from the Toast Marketing Board in exchange for inserting references to it into the series.
- In Bubble World, even before she learns the truth, Freesia grows annoyed with the plugs for Tracey’s Coffee.
Live Action TV
- In Extras, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin makes an appearance on Andy Millman’s sitcom after expressing “interest” to him and his producer (read: he wants to shill Coldplay’s new “greatest hits” album). Andy argues that having a random celebrity appearance would be an obvious plug and make no sense. The producer completely ignores Andy and accedes to all of Martin’s demands. Martin appears on the show wearing a T-shirt with the album cover on it, and Andy is forced to ask on camera when it would be released. Critics savage the show and blame Andy for trying to “prop up his lame duck of a sitcom.”
- An episode of the Canadian reality series Kenny vs. Spenny had the two lead characters facing off in a contest to see who could win the most money. Magnificent Bastard Kenny thinks up the idea of selling airtime on the show and earns over $5000 in sponsorship deals. Unfortunately, his contract with the producers requires that all ad revenue be shared equally between Kenny and Spenny, which negates any advantage from the scheme.
- In one episode of Arrested Development, Burger King spontaneously takes over the show. This leads to characters involuntarily blurting out Burger King plugs mid-speech, the camera jump-cutting to a Burger King restaurant, and the narrator openly extolling the virtues of Burger King. And in one scene, two characters go to Burger King to try and convince them to buy an Enforced Plug on their Show Within a Show.
- The Colbert Report often parodies this trope, as Stephen Colbert shamelessly plugs random products on his show. He interrupted a segment about health care to plug Sierra Mist, and he once spent an entire week on location in “Chili-delphia, the city of brotherly crunch,” in an effort to plug Doritos. That last segment reveals that Colbert is usually not even paid for the plugs — he tries to fix that but quickly accepts a deal in exchange for a lot of Nacho Cheese Doritos.
- On 30 Rock, the writers for the Show Within a Show are asked to plug a General Electric product and suddenly start talking about how great Diet Snapple is.
Liz Lemon: That Verizon Wireless service is just unbeatable! I mean, if I saw one of those phones on TV, I'd be like, “Where is my nearest retailer, so I can... get one?” [strained grin at camera] Can we have our money now?
- Seinfeld was no stranger to product placement; most often the product was just in the background. When it wasn’t, though, it was always done in a strange way where the product wasn’t shown quite as favorably as a blatant plug would. For instance:
- Jerry would randomly and blatantly offer other characters a Snapple; they would always decline.
- Kramer and Jerry are watching a surgery and accidentally drop a Junior Mint into the patient with none of the surgeons noticing, which inexplicably and miraculously saves his life.
- A Kenny Rogers’ Roasters restaurant opens across the street from Kramer, but the light from its massive sign shines into his apartment, bathes everything in a red glow, and keeps Kramer from sleeping.
- On The Office (US), manager Michael Scott often mentions various products that he thinks are the best thing ever. However, the show is a mockumentary and Michael is its resident idiot, so he’s probably being paid to do it In-Universe.
- In one very memorable episode of I've Got a Secret, Harpo Marx was the guest star, his secret being to pantomime various common phrases (for example: he puts jam on a light bulb and pretends to eat it, so he’s having a “light lunch”). For his last phrase, he took out a copy of his book Harpo Speaks with a hole drilled through it, took the missing piece, and put it in the hole — he’s “plugging his book”.
- On Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson needed to drive a car owned by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason; he would only let Clarkson drive it if he plugged Mason’s book. Product placement and advertising are banned on The BBC, so Clarkson drove around trying to “subtly work” references to Pink Floyd and the book into his car review.
Clarkson: In fact, I think the only thing better looking than [the Ferrari F60]... is this book, Inside Out, by the drummer from Pink Floyd.
- On one episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway, Wayne Brady stops a “Hollywood Director” scene-within-a-scene to hold up an imaginary can of Coca-Cola next to his face while turning to smile at the camera.
- Writing Excuses has a regular plug around the 7 to 8 minute mark. When they lack a sponsor for a particular episode, they are either shill their own books (the other ‘casters hum in the background when this happens) or resort to comedy, including “Buy Dan Bacon” and “Pants”.
- D-Generation X are the masters of shamelessly blatant advertising. When Shawn Michaels needs to cut off Triple H, that was usually an invitation for HBK to “smoothly transition into a shameless plug”.
- "This episode of WWE Raw is brought to you by fruity, fruity, delicious, fruity SKITTLES!"
- At DDT White Flight in Nagoya 2011 there was Umemura Personal Computer School Sponsored Match between Danshoku Dino and Masa Takanashi
- Fibber McGee and Molly tended to lampshade the trope to pieces. Midway through each episode, the McGees would encounter announcer Harlow Wilcox, who would quickly shift discussion of any topic to extolling the virtues of Johnson’s Self-Polishing Glo-Coat floorwax. Fibber or Molly would usually groan and go “Here We Go Again”.
- The Jack Benny Program was fond of lampshading its Enforced Plugs; after all, it frequently called itself “The Grape Nuts and Grape Nuts Flakes Program, starring Jack Benny!” Among the ways it did so:
Jack: And now, a word from our sponsor. Take it, Don.
- Announcer Don Wilson would interrupt sketches to shill the sponsor’s product, to the characters’ annoyance. In later years, when the program was sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes, Don would get the Sportsman Quartet to shill the product in song Once an Episode — always against Jack’s will, and usually with his shouted protests in the background. The Looney Tunes short based on the show parodies this practice.
- Don wasn’t averse to mistreating his plugs himself:
Don: “Jell-O.” Take it, Jack.
- A Prairie Home Companion would have fake commercials parodying this trope, as evidenced by their usual appearance after a Trauma Conga Line-type story. A character would be on the brink of death when the story segues into a plug for Bebop-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie or Powdermilk Biscuits (in the big blue box!).
- In The Leet World, after winning the first season, the counter-terrorists return in Season 2 with advertising contracts with WolfCorp, resulting in Westheimer and Chet occasionally inserting plugs for fictitious companies like “Sir Spice-a-Lot’s Chicken” and “Koala Cola” into conversations.
- Atop the Fourth Wall spoofed this, with Linkara’s robot double pointing out a plug, and Linkara snapping, “Shut up, hippie! He gave me a discount!”
- An episode of Sealab 2021 parodies the trope with numerous, gratuitous, increasingly jarring plugs for “Grizzlebee’s”, a fictional amalgam of casual family restaurants such as Chili’s and TGI Friday’s. The entire episode turned out to be an episode-long plug for the movie Tinfins.
“Try Grizzlebee’s new onion wings with maple-honey ranchapeño sauce!”
- Parodied in one Looney Tunes short starring Daffy Duck as a sadistic radio quiz show host and Porky Pig as the
victimcontestant. Every few minutes, Daffy would randomly plug “Eagle Hands Laundry”, to Porky’s increasing annoyance.
- American Dad! lampshaded an Enforced Plug for Burger King. Stan and Steve discuss about how to expose the truth about peanut butter in a National Treasure Whole Plot Reference at a Burger King restaurant, and Steve asks him why they were at a Burger King. Stan tells him that the laws of TV economics have changed. It might refer to Burger King’s status as one of the show’s original sponsors.
- Parodied in the Freakazoid! episode "Mission: Freakazoid". The show opened with the announcer saying, “This episode is brought to you by Anubis Markets, a division of Osiris Foods. However, this will in no way affect the contents of today's story.” But the story was periodically interrupted with Anubis Markets ads, and at the end, all the characters turned to the camera and delivered an extended ad for Anubis Markets (“Food so good you can eat it!”)
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