In the first episode of the first season of Daredevil, a middle-aged man is sitting alone in a park eating a sandwich. He is approached by another man in a dark suit who sits down next to him. The first man tries to brush him off and starts to walk away, but the man in the suit stops him. “I want to show you something,” he says. He whips out a device from the Microsoft Surface line, stands it up on the table using its built-in kickstand, and begins a product demonstration by streaming video to its high-resolution display. The first man’s mouth drops open, stunned at the versatility of this next-generation tablet/laptop hybrid.
If the show were muted, this is genuinely what the scene would look like. With the sound on, it’s supposed to be the man in the suit — James Wesley, the show’s main villain’s right-hand man — threatening the man on the bench, Clyde Farnum, a cop who is deep in debt, by showing him live video of his daughter and threatening to kill her if Farnum doesn’t cooperate. I had adjusted my suspension-of-disbelief dial to accept literally everything about the Marvel universe, and was along for the ride until Wesley pulled out that Surface.
I’m a tech writer. My friends are all nerds. They have every device. Some of them even own Surfaces. But nobody just casually… pulls out a Surface. Unless they live in the alternate universe of Hollywood-produced TV and film, in which case, they do. Constantly.
Microsoft has been placing the Surface in TV and movies since its inception — it’s even popped up in anime — but as of late, the phenomenon seems to have gotten more common and more heavy-handed. It is used by agent Dale Cooper’s doppelganger on Twin Peaks. It’s the computer of choice on CW’s DC shows including The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. Watson blogs on a Surface Pro in the latest season of BBC’s Sherlock (though Holmes has an iPhone). Three characters use a Surface in the movie Get Out. I remember one moment when a character pulls out a Surface and balances it on his lap. The Surface’s kickstand works well enough on a flat surface but it does not balance on a lap. No actor could make that look natural.
The Surface devices have gotten pretty good. According to The Verge, the Surface Laptop is the best laptop. Engadget declared last year that the line had gone “from flop to serious contender.” However, it is still not a popular computer. It’s very expensive — $1,299 for the Surface Laptop model recommended by The Verge — and sales even of the newer, well-regarded models have been up and down. Precise sales figures are closely held, but Microsoft’s laptop market share is dwarfed by Apple’s, which is in turn dwarfed by that of HP, Lenovo, and Dell.
I’m not the only one who has noticed all the unnatural Surface plugs. Splinter’s Katherine Kreuger also found the Microsoft placements in Get Out absurd, especially the use of Bing. “I find it completely believable that a young doctor living in the city would use a Surface Pro or a Nokia Lumia 930,” Molly McHugh at The Daily Dot wrote of The Mindy Project. “However, the idea that an entire group of various people with various income levels and various backgrounds use the same brand is just bad representation.” Over at Kotaku, Mike Fahey had a similar response to another show. “I love Surface tablets,” he wrote in an article titled “Quantum Break's Microsoft Product Placement Is Killing Me.” “It’s a fine product. But telling me a company so advanced they’ve invented time travel is passing out Surface tablets to all of its employees? That’s just silly. It’s one of the main reasons I had trouble getting into the television series Arrow during season one—it was lousy with Surface tablets.”
Apparently Microsoft is pushing this thing even further. Its partnership with Fox for Lethal Weapon is called “Story Stretch” because it streeetches product placements into commercial breaks, social media posts, and “beyond traditional static product placement to deepen product experiences and content extensions that benefit both our brands.” Lethal Weapon’s Twitter account is peppered with mini Surface ads like this one while the show continues to feature the device as a supporting character. In episode eight of season two, “Fork-Getta-Bout-It,” a forensic analyst uses his Surface at a crime scene to pull up information on a potential witness, and then later on the checkered tablecloth at a restaurant, editing a movie script using the stylus. The Surface gets about 30 seconds of screen time in each scene, which demonstrate the breadth of its capabilities. We see it propped up by its kickstand. We see fingers tap at its touch screen. We see the colorful notes that can be drawn atop a document. We see that its flat keyboard is detachable. Microsoft pulled off a similar streeetch on Black-ish, which continues the storyline in one episode with a 60-second spot that airs during the show’s commercial break. In the spot, the main character Dre and his co-workers, who work at an ad agency in the show, brainstorm ideas for a Microsoft Surface ad.
It’s not like these hamfisted placements are disrupting what would otherwise be poignant moments of drama. It just feels bad. First of all, it takes you out of the scene — notice the Surface once, and you’ll notice it each and every time. Second, it’s insulting. This guy is just casually using a Surface in bed? And it’s not just falling over? Do you think I’m an idiot?
Microsoft has had some high profile flubs with its Surface product placement. During election coverage in 2014, CNN pundits were set up behind a row of Surfaces but were spotted surreptitiously using iPads. A partnership with the NFL backfired when Patriots coach Bill Bellicheck blasted them for being “undependable” in 2016. Hollywood is a much safer bet: It’s logical to think that if anyone could make the Surface look plausible, it’s actors. But Microsoft seems to have forgotten the goal of product placement, which is to disguise an ad so it may slip pleasantly, unnoticed, into your lizard brain. Which it could totally do, if it would just ease off the gas a bit. Must you really demand the show demonstrate five different features in under 30 seconds? Does that work? I don’t know, I’m not Don Draper. But this shit is getting annoying.