ABC’s ‘Private Practice’ features Sunnyvale company’s da Vinci surgical robot

Doctors on ABC's "Private Practice" operate using the da Vinci robotic surgical console. (Photo: Private Practice, ABC)

On TV, but like in real life, a patient with extensive cancer was told she had months to live.  But the doctor said there might be one last treatment.

“I did some research and found a new protocol…on this machine, the da Vinci…  I’d be able to cut in ways that I’d never be able to do freehand,” Dr. Addison Montgomery said during a Jan. 6 episode of “Private Practice,” ABC’s popular medical drama.

The scene cuts away, and the dynamic Dr. Montgomery turns to speak to the patient’s desperate lover about the cancer surgery: “We got it.  All of it,” she says triumphantly.

Told there were no treatments left for her advanced cancer, the patient got lucky.  The da Vinci robotic surgical console saved the day, scoring one for robots.

Also scoring was the robot’s manufacturer, Intuitive Surgical Inc. (NASDAQ: ISRG).  Some 7.8 million viewers watched the device save “Susan,” according to Nielson ratings.

It’s not the first time the da Vinci has played a starring role.  The machines have made an appearance on other television programs as well, such as “Grey’s Anatomy” and even a James Bond movie years ago.

It’s called product placement, and although Intuitive Surgical never paid a dime, in 2007 companies paid a combined $2.9 billion to advertise their products in this seemingly unnoticeable way, according to the 2011 “Entertainment, Media & Advertising Market Research Handbook.”

Two-thirds of advertisers use product placement advertising because of its ability to target specific populations and encourage “stronger emotional connection” though involvement in emotional story lines, according to a 2006 “Broadcasting & Cable” article.

On television, shows like “The Office” and “One Tree Hill” feature the most product placements.  “The Office” has included 1,609 to date, and “One Tree Hill” 2,674.  They have featured products made by Nike, Macy’s, Cisco Systems and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Companies typically use product placement because its “stealth nature” creates more innocuous ads, according to the 2009 “Handbook on Brand and Experience Management.”  According to the book, product placement, which began in the 1980s, can potentially influence viewers “without their attempts to avoid or counter argue the message.”

“We get more product placement requests than we participate in,” said Chris Simmonds, Intuitive Surgical’s senior marketing service director.  “It has to be a good story and make sense to use the system.  We want to make sure it’s logical and clinically accurate.”

Intuitive Surgical learned this from the console’s appearance in the 2002 James Bond movie “Die Another Day.”  In an opening scene, the console scanned Bond’s body and took a blood sample — neat procedures, but not ones the console actually performs.

In real life, the $1.41 million surgical system is typically used for hysterectomies and prostate removal, but other cancer-removal surgeries (such as the the one featured on “Private Practice”) make up a large portion of its procedures.  The robot-guided surgical procedures use smaller incisions than traditional surgeries, making it possible for extremely weak and frail patients to undergo surgeries that typically would have been too traumatic.

As America’s baby-boomer generation ages, demand will likely grow for these less-invasive, cancer-treating procedures.  For a generation that has witnessed the development of nearly all cancer treatments, many may feel invincible and entitled enough to believe, as “Susan’s” lover did, that terminal cancer is “unacceptable… I want a cure plain and simple.  And I don’t care what it costs.”

Intuitive Surgical operates on a “razor and blade” business model, so procedure growth will ultimately determine its success.  Gary S. Guthart, the company’s chief executive officer, said in the company’s January earnings call that over the past year the company has focused on growing their new procedures and expanding business internationally.  Indeed, in the past year, the company’s international procedures grew 42 percent.

“We’ll have to see where the emerging procedures go as they come up.  We call them emerging because they’re promising.  They’re growing quickly but on small bases.  Really the question for us is how quickly can they move up,” he said.

In general, Intuitive Surgical doesn’t pay for product placement, Simmonds said.  The company tends to focus its marketing on building hospital awareness of its procedures, because the physician is the “most important person in defining a patient’s choices when it comes to surgery,” Simmonds said.

But as companies pay for more and more placements, a market of free placements still flourishes, partly designed to drive legitimacy.

Usually “Private Practice” writers come up with a procedure—say robotic surgery.  It is then up to the show’s technical adviser, Susie Schelling, to make sure the right equipment and right people are used in medical scenes.  “That way we get the authenticity we’re looking for,” she said.  According to Schelling, the show doesn’t typically receive money for product placements.  Nor, in the most recent “Private Practice” episode, did Intuitive Surgical ask ABC for it.

“It’s not just acting — we back up our actors with real medical stuff, so that everyone can suspend disbelief and believe it’s a real person being operated on,” she said.

Usually the show can’t use real product names, because it might step on some toes.  “Say we want to use a radio, but it’s not Sony—well, we’re owned by Sony,” Schelling said.

In addition to passing ABC’s approval for any product use, Schelling also has to clear it with the company who produces the product and show them the script.  Companies wouldn’t want their products used on patients who die, for example.

“Usually it’s a good collaboration.  We understand the limits of the products, and they understand the drama.  And somewhere in the middle there’s a mutual meeting point,” Schelling said.

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