associated press photo

Survivor creator Mark Burnett.

DESERTED ISLAND: Thirteen is looking like an unlucky number for Survivor, which is heading to the South Pacific Cook Islands for its 13th season next week without longtime commercial sponsors like General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Coke, Johnson & Johnson, Home Depot and Campbell Soup. The big-spending advertisers have apparently been scared off by the theme of the new season, which will kick off by pitting teams against each other on racial lines.

“We’re more interested in integrating our vehicles into the storylines of TV shows or film,” said GM spokeswoman Ryndee Carney. “We just ran out of ways to do that given the format of the show being set on an island.”

“So it took six years and 12 editions to notice this? Yeah, right,” wrote Scott Collins of the Los Angeles Times in a story on the auto giant’s sudden decision to leave the show. “GM and CBS say the car giant’s decision was made in May, but one wonders why the news reached the wider world only after Survivor’s ethnic theme was announced last month and greeted with outrage in some quarters.”

CBS insists it’s replaced the ad dollars lost with another auto endorsement, but none of the major car manufacturers contacted for an Advertising Age story were willing to confirm their participation. GM’s sponsorship was worth $20 million US to the show, which was a pioneer of product placement in reality television, while the balance of the other corporate defections total some $26 million, which CBS has not said it’s been able to replace.

The show has been slipping in the ratings, so it’s not surprising that creator Mark Burnett might have overreached in an attempt to generate buzz, grasping for what the L.A. Times story called “the great third rail of American life” — race. “(T)he truth is that Survivor has always nurtured a divisive, dystopian, Lord Of The Flies-type view of human nature,” wrote Collins. “In fact, that’s the whole fun of it ... So why criticize executive producer Mark Burnett and company for applying the Survivor world view to race, perhaps the most fundamentally American issue?”

It’s a nice theory, but wouldn’t it be more interesting if Burnett was forced to make up the shortfall in ad dollars with more inventive product placement deals with smaller companies and brands often tacitly marketed on racial lines? Given the pervasive funk of body odour we imagine coming off of Survivor contestants, Procter & Gamble’s Febreze was a natural fit, but how would Burnett shoehorn in advertisers like NASCAR, the NBA, L. L. Bean, Timberland, New Balance and Nike? If Survivor is going to go out in a blaze of, well, infamy at the very least, it might as well try and be thought-provoking in the process.

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