Air Power

Air Power 1F.W. Pearce knew he needed some major marketing muscle to transform his tiny Ciao Bella Gelato Co. into a big national brand. But the obvious route — advertising his artisanal ice cream on network television — wasn’t an option. “Our TV budget? Try zero,” he says.

So when producers for NBC’s popular reality show “The Apprentice” called one day two years ago to see if Ciao Bella would be willing to participate in an episode, Mr. Pearce says he was taken aback. “It was just too lucky to be true,” he says.

Ciao Bella, based in Irvington, N.J., not only ended up with nearly an hour of national exposure — plus a run on repeats and DVD — but the $13 million company got it without paying a cent to the network and just $14,000 to the show.

Prime time on one of the Big Four networks has long been the domain of big business, which could shell out millions of dollars to buy national commercials or pay steep fees to have products woven into story lines. But as Mr. Pearce discovered, the lower-budget formula of reality TV — most notably on “The Apprentice” but also on shows such as “Project Runway” and “American Idol” — has opened the door for smaller businesses to get air time, and even a starring role, on the cheap.