We're accustomed, by now, to unsubtle product placement on TV. We accept the intrusion of Nissans into every other frame of NBC's "Heroes." We don't flinch when Fox's "American Idol" set shares its color scheme with a Coke bottle. We accept that every statistic uttered during a sports broadcast is sponsored by some company or other.
So it says a lot about the unexpected reach of Taco Bell's "Steal a Base, Steal a Taco" promotion - and the fervor with which Fox Sports has embraced it - that so many people would find this one so dirty. So Orwellian. Whether it is or not.
If you've been watching baseball this week, the details of the giveaway are probably emblazoned in your brain, like multiplication tables or the Giant Glass theme song. But for the benefit of everyone else - and Taco Bell, of course - here goes: After the first stolen base of the series, the chain promised to give a free beef taco to anyone who asked. (The catch: You have to go from 2 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday.)
Jacoby Ellsbury did the deed in the fourth inning Thursday night. And not long afterward, Fox Sports played this conversation, recorded a day earlier from the Red Sox dugout, between Ellsbury and shortstop Royce Clayton:
Clayton: Hey, you like Taco Bell?
Clayton: You know, if somebody steals a base in the World Series, everybody in America gets a Taco Bell free . . . taco.
Ellsbury: Everybody in America?
Clayton: Everybody in America gets a free taco.
Could you repeat that one more time? Soon, conspiracy theories were swirling - especially since Clayton had also been caught talking up the tacos with center fielder Coco Crisp. ("You could go to every Taco Bell in the world and say that 'I ain't got my taco!' " he had said. "How they gonna know?") Announcers Tim McCarver and Joe Buck seemed to chat up Taco Bell at every opportunity. And on Thursday, Fox Sports announcer Chris Myers conducted a fawning interview with Taco Bell honcho Rob Savage, who said, with an impressively straight face, that this giveaway was "for our customers."
"A World Series game broke out in the middle of a Taco Bell commercial," grumbled CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell, who calculated the free advertising for Taco Bell: $8 million over two games.
It was strictly good fortune on Taco Bell's part, insists Fox Sports senior producer Pete Macheska, who chatted by phone while awaiting his bags at the Denver airport yesterday. Yes, Taco Bell's sponsorship carried certain obligations, he said: The announcers had to talk about the promotion, show a logo, and interview Savage in the stands after Ellsbury's stolen base.
But Clayton, he said, was an unexpected, uncompensated spokesman - a guy who happened to be wearing a microphone, and happened to like the Taco Bell deal.
As part of Major League Baseball's contract with Fox Sports, a player or coach from one of the teams is miked every night, Macheska said. On Wednesday, it was Clayton, who isn't on the World Series roster. He had time to ponder the Taco Bell deal. And he talked about it. A lot.
"He seemed like he was enthralled with this stealing-a-base thing," said Macheska, who said Fox collected footage of Clayton talking about Taco Bell with pitcher Josh Beckett and other players, including Ellsbury. They decided to prepare an Ellsbury clip.
"We thought, just in case this kid is the guy that steals the base, we will have it ready," Macheska said. "We were lucky."
So was Taco Bell - though you've got to salute the chain for coming up with a promotion that's as eye-catching as it is risk-free. Mid-afternoon isn't exactly a high-traffic time for the typical fast food restaurant. And odds are, most people who wander in for free tacos will buy something else, too. (Profit margins are pretty good on 20-ounce cups of soda.)
It's Clayton who seems the big loser here - shilling for Taco Bell without getting a dime. Fox Sports, though, is bearing the brunt of the frustration, a signal that viewers might be reaching their limits when it comes to accepting the devil's deal that sponsorship entails - or drawing lines when the players get involved.
Using the players to shill for your sponsors - however innocently - seems that much more unseemly. And when announcers do it, too, it's no wonder that the skeptics have the day.
We've been trained to accept product placement when we know there's a quid pro quo. We understand that the networks have to pay the bills. But given the festival of endorsements that every sports game has become, it might have been nice for McCarver and Buck to show more restraint. Talk about Taco Bell once, if you must. Because you must. But give away publicity like so many free tacos, and the viewers will start questioning your motives.