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Intuitive Surgical's Marketing Intuition

Product placement in movies and TV shows has become commonplace. Usually it's a casual shot that blends into the scenery, sometimes it's a little more obvious - i.e. the Coke cups on the American Idoljudges' desk - and occasionally it hits you in the face. That was the case last night when I was being a couch potato watching the season finale of ABC's"Grey's Anatomy" on TiVo last night.

Essentially two commercials for Intuitive Surgical, the company that makes operating-room robots, were embedded in the script for the show. And I can't imagine the actors were happy about having to pretend over-the-top effusiveness and to recite lines that were so blatantly written into the episode because ISRG was paying for the storyline. Although, these days maybe the actors are resigned to the fact that this kind of stuff helps pay their salaries.

Source: intuitivesurgical.com

It went like this. The chief of surgery, Dr. Webber, is trying to keep one of his top docs, Bailey, from defecting from his staff to pediatrics. So, he tries to woo and wow her by playing Santa Claus and buying the latest state of the art ISRG equipment. "No, you did not," Dr. Bailey said. (Yes, I actually rewound the TiVo and transcribed the dialogue.) "Oh, yes I did," replied Dr. Webber. "The daVinci SiHD Surgical System," he said like a proud papa. "Tell me you didn't wait until I all but left the general surgery program to buy us a daVinci," Dr. Bailey exclaimed. "Care to take it for a spin?" Webber asked. And then Bailey turns to him and with a #@*!-eating grin effuses, "Santa!"

Cut to a later scene when Dr. Bailey takes the daVinci for a spin. By now, she's referring to the thing as "Leo" (uh, Leonardo...as in daVinci) and verbalizing her amazement and wonder about everything it can do. "540-degree wristed movement. You can't do that with a lathroscopic," she says. "Or in open surgery," Webber adds before going on to claim that a doctor at The Cleveland Clinic is using a daVinci to do a "single incision gall bladder removal through the belly button." Oy!

I ran upstairs to my computer to Tweet about what I just saw and then Googled Intuitive Surgical's website where, lo and behold, it was cross-promoting the whole thing. "From Seattle Grace to a Real Hospital Near You," the homepage artwork with a Seattle skyline photo says. If you don't watch Grey's, Seattle Grace is the name of the hospital in the show.

ISRG shares have been on fire lately . They've surged from less than a hundred bucks in early April to more than $150 today. But the company reported flat sales in the first quarter, presumably as cash-strapped hospitals cutback on purchases of big ticket items like the daVinci. I don't know what the company spent for the Grey's thing, but I can't imagine some hospital CEO or CFO sitting at home watching the show and saying, "Wow. We just have to buy one of those, right now!" Or maybe ISRG thinks patients will come into hospitals now and ask if they have one of those fancy things they saw on that TV show. Either way, I can't see it driving sales. But it did get me to write about it.

Now, if I could only write a plotline to finally, once and for all, get Meredith and Derekto tie the knot or break it off for good and put an end to that oh-so-tired back and forth. Maybe I could buy a guest scriptwriter spot.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for The Cleveland Clinic says the doctor the fictional Dr. Webber referred to in last night's "Grey's Anatomy" is a real doctor at the hospital. His name is Sricharan Chalikonda. Neither the hospital nor the doc had any heads up about the shoutout in the show. In fact, Dr. Chalikonda was in surgery last night when the progam aired. And, indeed, the "single incision gall bladder removal through the belly button" is one of the procedures he does with the daVinci. The hospital's checking to see if he has any relationship to ISRG.

NEW UPDATE:A Cleveland Clinic spokesperson says Dr. Chalikonda "teaches other surgeons how to use the (ISRG) robot on behalf of the company. He has also spoken at a conference for them. All of his ties have been disclosed per Cleveland Clinic guidelines."

Questions? Comments? Pharma@cnbc.com and follow me on Twitter at mhuckman