Only two episodes in, and Ashton Kutcher has already pissed off his bosses at CBS: He orchestrated some obvious product placement for a handful of startups in a recent episode of Two and a Half Men, and the network is steamed that they didn’t get paid for it.
In Monday’s episode, Ashton’s character Walden Schmidt is lounging on the couch with his laptop. The computer is plastered with stickers of social networking sites like Foursquare, Chegg, and Hipmunk, along with a few others that are unidentifiable. (The companies’ big mistake, says Bnet, was relying on unrecognizable symbols and wasting their precious seconds of screen-time.)
Now, that would be totally normal for a character like Walden, who’s an Internet billionaire—but because Ashton has financial stakes in Foursquare and other companies, it’s immediately a conflict of interest. (CBS did include a disclaimer about Foursquare in the episode’s credits, per FCC regulations, but no word on if they acknowledged the other companies Ashton has ties to.)
So where’s the line between a realistic prop and product placement? I’m a playwright; I wrote an entire one-act play about Twitter a few years ago with no intent of providing the site with free advertising. But then, my play was seen only by 100 NYU students, not by CBS’ 20 million viewers.
Sure, Ashton Kutcher is known for these unsavory conflicts of interest, like when he recently edited Details’ online September issue and plugged three tech companies he’s an investor in. But there’s two definitions of artistic integrity at play here: 1) Disclosing your financial stakes, but also 2) incorporating genuine character details and not using TV shows’ favorite fake social-networking site “FaceSpace.”