- The disposable young women. Check.
- The entitlement of stars and their hangers-on. Check.
- The obscene posturing and conspicuous consumpton. Check.
- The predatory executives. Check.
- The over-the-top agent, as played with gleeful brio by Jeremy Piven. Check.
But here’s one that appears to be a first for Hollywood: product placement as guest star. In a move that Piven’s deliriously amoral Ari Gold would love, a new tequila brand named Avion has had its product launch on a major national show. Over the course of three episodes so far. For free.
To recap, Vince’s homeboy Turtle gets enticed to Mexico to check out a can’t-miss new tequila venture by a female former employee of his failed limo business. They fly down in a private jet and are met by the sidearm-wielding patron in a setting that reeks narco criminal enterprise. The tequila is Avion and the name is repeated over and over. It’s quickly made clear that what is required is Vince’s superstar endorsement, not Turtle’s participation.
Back to L.A. jet Turtle and his wannabe score with a case or two of the product, which somehow finds its way into the storyline as the booze that fuels Vince’s drunken cavorting with real-life porn star Sasha Grey—and perhaps initiates a dangerous spiral that may threaten his career.
So heavy-handed was the placement, I thought at first that Avion was fictional. Turns out, however, that it is real, a startup venture co-owned by Kenny Dichter, a childhood friend of Entourage creator Doug Ellin. Dichter and Ellin grew up together in Merrick, New York, and have known each other for 35 years. That’s not all. Dichter is also an owner of corporate jet company Marquis, which happens to be the name on the plane flown to Mexico by Turtle.
Hello! Is anybody paying attention? Isn’t there a conflict of interest here? Isn’t there an obvious quid pro quo masked by longstanding friendship? HBO doesn’t accept paid advertising, yet when does a product endorsement become so blatant and extensive that it inescapably is worth a lot of money?
Since HBO also doesn’t allow payment from product placement, the practice is a rarity on the network’s shows. What’s the point if no money can change hands? Yet the placement here is so pervasive that Avion has what amounts to its own story arc. As reported in the New York Post, Ellin brushed off the blockbuster launch of his buddy’s tequila as merely old friends helping each other out. Ellin claimed he had approached Dichter for help with the storyline. “I need a business for Turtle,” Ellin said he told Dichter. And Dichter said something like, “Hey, I just started this tequila business.”
Let’s leave it to speculation why a veteran showrunner was so stumped for a simple plot point that he asked a friend with no experience in the business for help.
According to the Post, Ellin told Dichter that the tequila angle was a great idea, but that “you have no control how I use it.” Oh. That extinguishes conflict of interest.
(I must admit that connecting Avion, however vaguely, to Mexican criminal money, or with inducing a binge, might not be my first choice for getting a product off the ground. But you know what P.T. Barnum said about all publicity being good publicity.)
Ellin went on to pointedly tell the Post that no money changed hands and that he couldn’t charge for a product placement because HBO doesn’t allow it.
Disingenuous much? Anybody care to estimate how much Avion’s exposure on Entourage is worth? Or what the launch of a new tequila into a crowded market might cost?
Ari Gold is so delighted he needs to fire somebody.