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Real Housewives is a product placement paradise. But fans say the series recently went too far.

Looks like Bravo fans might not respect The Hustle after all.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sonja Morgan (second from left) and Dorina Medley (second from right) loved the new film The Hustle.
Rodolfo Martinez/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

On the May 1 episode of The Real Housewives of New York City, the Bravo show shocked longtime viewers with an integrated promotion for the movie The Hustle that was unlike anything the show had ever aired before. The episode, titled “Tears of a Clown,” also featured one cast member somersaulting in a sequined dress center stage at the Big Apple Circus, followed by another cast member, dressed as a baby doll with an oversize, sparkly bow on her head, crying to her mother about feeling let down as the honorary circus ringmaster — and still, all fans wanted to talk about afterward was that awkward scene promoting the new Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson movie. The reality show had finally crossed the line from heavily manipulated reality to being too scripted.

Bravo viewers felt “bamboozled,” according to comedian Danny Pellegrino on his podcast, Everything Iconic. It’s as if P.T. Barnum himself had attempted to pull a fast one on devoted fans of the Real Housewives, and he didn’t succeed.

It’s not as though Bravo fans expect their fighting housewives are in it for, say, the art. Between Housewives-branded commercial interstitials and the constant push of their own products (Ageless by Ramona, anyone?), fans know they’re being sold a thing or two; it’s part of the junky fun. But the reaction to this particular scene raises the question: Is there a Rubicon for unacceptable product placement in reality TV, and has Andy Cohen’s production staff finally crossed it?

The Housewives’ Hustle

The promotion for The Hustle occurred about 15 minutes into “Tears of a Clown.” “Housewives” Dorinda Medley and Sonja Morgan stood in a movie theater near none-too-subtle posters for the film, when Medley exclaimed, “I cannot believe that Anne Hathaway, she’s amazing.” Morgan chimed in, “And look at Rebel, she was so good.”

At first, the conversation about The Hustle may have seemed innocuous, if not a little bit suspicious, but it continued as Medley and Morgan went on to have lunch at Essex House. “That movie was worth going to the theater for,” Morgan proclaimed, to which Medley responded, “Very relatable.”

Megan O’Donnell, the host of the Bravo-centered podcast Bravo Happy Hour, explained why it felt so off, saying, “They don’t have a history of talking about movies with one another; if they did in previous episodes or seasons, maybe this would have been less jarring.” She also said it seemed like the two cast members on the scene “were just reading a prewritten script about the film.” Viewers on Twitter agreed.

By now devoted fans of reality TV have likely realized that the show that announces its authenticity more often than not presents varying degrees of verisimilitude. There’s a certain buy-in that reality TV fans participate in with their beloved shows, and not unlike Fight Club, the first rule of reality TV is that you don’t talk about exactly how real (or not) it is. The RHONY/The Hustle scene suggests there is a line that reality TV can cross in fictionalizing or overproducing content for fans.

Brian Moylan, who recaps The Real Housewives for Vulture, spoke to me about his reaction to the scene, which he’d warned viewers on Twitter was “absolutely staggering.” Moylan said, “We’ve seen product placement before, some of it pretty blatant ... but this is just egregious. It’s like Bravo no longer cares about trying to make its integrations seamless or about the viewing experiences of the fans at home. It’s no longer about making a good, enjoyable show for us die-hard fans that have been with this franchise for more than a decade. It’s now about making something they can cash in on, and honestly, that feels kind of gross.”

Bravo and its parent company, NBCUniversal, did not respond to requests for comment; neither did The Hustle’s production company, MGM. While Universal Pictures (which, like Bravo, is owned by NBCUniversal) is distributing The Hustle internationally, an MGM company, United Artists Releasing, is distributing The Hustle domestically. Without Bravo’s confirmation, it remains possible that despite widespread viewer assumptions, the scene was not paid promotion for The Hustle. But that’s a problem in and of itself; Bravo not warning its viewers that they were watching brand integration raises a question about the advertisement’s ethics.

The complicated ethics of product placement

Michelle A. Amazeen, an assistant professor of mass communication and advertising and public relations at Boston University, told me that, per the American Advertising Federation, “Advertising should be clearly distinguishable from news and entertainment content.” Oftentimes, she explained, reality TV shows will include disclaimers when integrating brands in its episodes so as to remain transparent to viewers.

In this day and age, advertising gets slipped into the media and entertainment consumed by the masses without them noticing more and more often. “Advertising is seeping into everything,” Amazeen said. “Consumers can now not only ignore ads but they can skip over them, they can fast-forward, they can block them. More people than ever are using ad blockers, so advertisers need to evolve in order to get their messages in front of people, and this is what we’re seeing. They’re integrating their commercial messages into programming content, so this has been a long time coming. ... It’s happening increasingly, and it’s happening with news content as well.”

Integrated advertisements can be found everywhere because studies repeatedly find it effective. A 2016 study conducted by Nielsen found that viewers enjoy integrated advertisements much more than an advertisement that plays before a video begins. It’s also more effective for advertisers, as the 2016 study found that an average of 86 percent of viewers used in Nielsen’s studies recalled the brand after viewing an integrated ad as opposed to the 65 percent of viewers who watched a pre-roll ad. If you’re already paying attention to the TV show you’ve tuned in to watch, you’re more likely to pay attention to an integrated ad that plays without your noticing it, after all.

As upsetting as it may be to feel that advertisers subliminally promote their products, the reaction to RHONY proves that viewers still don’t want to sit through overt promotions. Mara Einstein, the author of Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell, explained, “The whole point of brand integration is to not interrupted the flow of the content, and this has done exactly the opposite.” Basically, the bad acting in The Real Housewives simply made the branded ad seem poorly executed.

From an advertiser’s standpoint, branded content, native advertising, brand integrations, and product placement should slip silently into consumers’ psyches. But are audiences actually okay with being constantly sold to?

Tinsley Mortimer, Sonja Morgan, Ramona Singer, Luann de Lesseps, and Dorinda Medley in a season 11 episode of Real Housewives of New York.
Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

One viewer named Alison Lasher told me she felt especially turned off because when she was watching the show using the Bravo TV app, the scene in question was immediately followed by an actual commercial for The Hustle. “It really was so obvious within the scene [that it was an ad], but to air the actual movie commercial seconds later was too much. [It] didn’t feel like they gave their audience or us any credit,” Lasher said.

Product placement is par for the course at Bravo

Most Bravo fans probably knew they were watching an ad even without a real commercial for The Hustle following it, though, because Bravo often plays advertisements like it during commercial breaks. In these “legit” commercials, Bravolebrities — as the stars of Bravo’s many reality shows are called — promote upcoming movies, like this spot for Pitch Perfect 3. Those ads usually provide exciting glimpses into the Bravolebrities’ acting chops and a certain likable kitsch. But they don’t take up time that fans expect would be dedicated to the show.

Apparently, branded ads that include Bravolebrities in a full-on promotion weren’t enough. As the Los Angeles Times reported last March, as network TV viewership drops, networks are attempting to cut down on commercial time in order to imitate streaming sites. In early 2019, NBCUniversal told Axios that it planned to cut down on primetime commercials by 20 percent by 2020. It seems those ads just might start showing up within the TV shows themselves.

It’s not like Bravo shows don’t often promote products to viewers — one of the hallmarks of The Real Housewives’ franchise is that the cast members often attempt to leverage their fame and exposure by peddling merchandise with their names on them. There have been workout videos, sex toys, candles, and, most successfully, the Skinnygirl margarita mix. Clearly, Bravo is no stranger to brand integration, or to using its reality TV celebrities to sell products, whether their own or other brands’.

So it’s almost endearing that fans might feel slighted by a scene that featured Morgan and Medley praising The Hustle, but it indicates that reality TV viewers might actually expect their favorite shows to seem, well, real.

Will this moment in which Bravo fans felt taken for fools signal a change? Perhaps, but due to the landscape of TV brand integrations, that seems unlikely. Amazeen told me, “On news sites, online, and in social media, there’s the disclosure requirements, but on television and cable with program integration, they really don’t enforce that, again, because typically there’s no product claims being made. The FTC [Federal Trade Commission] is concerned with protecting consumers from deception; that’s their mandate in terms of advertising.”

While viewers may feel deceived by Medley and Morgan’s unconvincing performances and off-putting praise for the movie, Amazeen explained, “There were no claims about the movie being made, so there’s nothing there to enforce, because there was no possibility for any deception about the movie.”

It’s up to consumers to decide whether advertisements slipping into their entertainment is okay with them, because audience numbers and dollars matter. Then again, in a world that’s overwhelmingly inundated with sponsored content, what happened in “Tears of a Clown” could only continue. As Einstein said, “When we used to go to the movies and they first started putting ads on before the movie started, people used to throw popcorn at the screens because they were like ‘I just spent $10 to see a movie; I didn’t pay to watch a bunch of ads.’”

Now people get to movie theaters early to watch the previews for other films, so maybe in just a couple of years, Dorinda Medley and Sonja Morgan will review an upcoming movie in every episode of The Real Housewives of New York City. If not, it’s probably likely that at least a few Real Housewives viewers will go see The Hustle because they’d heard “somewhere” that Anne Hathaway is great in it.

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