The season finale of "The Sopranos" in June left a big question in viewers' minds: Did the hit HBO series go too far in promoting elite vehicles?
Scriptwriters placed comments praising a Maserati, a Cadillac Escalade and a Nissan Xterra in the mouths of key characters.
In one episode, Johnny Sack shows off his Maserati coupe to an admiring Tony Soprano.
"It's always been a dream of mine to own a fine Italian sports car," Sack says. "Tops out at 176 miles per hour. Standing quarter, 13 and change."
The scene ends with Sack and Soprano savoring the sound of the ignition and a shot of the car peeling out.
In another episode, Soprano gives his son, A.J., a yellow Xterra. A.J. grins and says the SUV has "sensors in the seat belts. Part of Nissan's triple-safety philosophy."
Laura Caraccioli-Davis, a vice president of Starcom Entertainment, which arranges product placement, says of the safety reference: "That one was really obvious. It disengaged me from the story."
Throughout the season, the Cadillac logo was visible on the headrest of Soprano's Escalade.
After a crash in which he nearly flipped the luxury vehicle, Soprano told his hospitalized passenger that the Escalade was "totaled" but that it "probably saved our lives."
Paid product placement does not happen on HBO, network and advertising executives agree.
HBO programs do not carry advertising. But even unpaid placement of vehicles can save shows such as "The Sopranos" serious money in production costs.
Automakers provided the Maserati, Xterra and Escalade.
Patricia Ganguzza, president of Aim Productions, a product placement company, says: "In the case of car companies, if they loan productions their cars, it's a natural opportunity for exposure. And it saves a lot of money."
An executive close to GM says the automaker had "a lot of dialogue about the crash" with show officials so it wouldn't reflect badly on the Escalade.
But a GM spokeswoman says, "We have absolutely no input as to how our vehicles are described in the script or how they're used."
Marco Mattiacci, vice president of marketing of Ferrari/Maserati North America, says a producer of "The Sopranos" approached the company about obtaining the Maserati coupe. The automaker's one condition, Mattiacci says, was that the car couldn't be involved in an accident or violence.
An HBO spokesman says that the network followed "industry standards that dictate a product be used in the way in which it is intended."