Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“We Interrupt This Commercial To Bring You Your Regularly Scheduled Program”

Corn flakes, sliced peaches, and Emilio Estevez in Repo Man

Reading Catharine Charlesworth’s recent review of Wreck-It Ralph on Critics at Large got me thinking about the remarkable way that brands and commercial products have so effectively permeated our lives – becoming so much a part of who we are, and the stories we tell about ourselves. For some, this may be a kind of tragedy, but I don’t really think it is. The degree to which popular culture and personal identity has become bound up in particular brands and products isn’t in itself something to mourn or something to embrace with any enthusiasm, but it is a reflection of our particular moment of modernity. Apple versus PC, Coke versus Pepsi, iPhone versus Android – these choices genuinely matter to many people, and running from it in the popular representations of our reality only serves to make those representations less, well, representative.

Catharine notes, rightly I think, that the integration of certain real video games into Wreck-It Ralph seems to genuinely add to the universe it portrays, and even gives real entertainment value to the viewers, who (like anyone) are always delighted to see themselves, and their interests, reflected back to them in the movies and television shows they watch. Of course, that isn’t the only reason why we are seeing more and more product placement (what is often more politely now called “brand integration”) in our TV shows and movies, but nonetheless it is worth pointing out that there are still better and worse ways of going about it.

And with an eye on the worst of it, there was, I confess, another, entirely serendipitous catalyst for this line of thought. Turning on the television with my breakfast last week (I won’t tell you which brand of cereal I was eating), I happened to catch precisely the two minutes of ABC’s The View when this happened.

Whoopi’s not-so-organic segue into the segment: “Speaking of something really different….” is almost impossible to appreciate on anything but the most craven terms. Moreover, at no point in the piece does anyone call attention to the simple fact that ABC and Disney have long been the same company, or that there is nothing newsworthy or notable about a major corporation’s promotional campaign for a new video game, especially as Christmas Day approaches. But what made the segment so profoundly painful for me at the time was Barbara Walters’s hesitation to play along. Watch her stare intently at the newly-designed Mickey Mouse ears in her hands while Whoopi speaks and your heart will break. All I could imagine was Walters wondering to herself how five long decades of journalistic integrity could possibly have come to this one moment. “I have my pride,” Barbara protests, and the others respond as if mere vanity was keeping her from putting it on, until she finally acquiesces. It is a heart-breaking 90 seconds, and just might be looked back on as the moment when reality itself “jumped the shark”.

From Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, to the practice of having television actors hawk their sponsor’s wares in character at the beginning or end of a program, product placement has a long history on American network television. Whatever one can say about the current dominance of the practice, you can’t say that television is ‘suddenly’ selling out. Network television (and radio before it) has always been driven by advertising. This has been true of some of the best and the worst shows they’ve given us. The classic business model for broadcast TV has meant that for much of its history commercial television didn’t sell shows, it sold viewers. Still, art – as always – found a way. Whatever incentive drove the network executive (like arts patrons of old) to push in a particular direction, creative individuals still did amazing work, even within those frames. What is relatively new is the impact that the rise of premium cable, syndication, video tape-and then DVDs and direct downloads have had on that old business model. Networks are struggling in the 1000-channel universe and their market share (and therefore their bottom-line) has been hit hard. Advertising has been the price we’ve paid for freely available broadcast television. For that reason, there’s something to celebrate in the broadcast networks’ valiant efforts to resist the move to cable and subscription services. Still, these old models die hard, and in this era of PVRs and iTunes, networks continue to see money-making potential in soliciting advertising. But it has gotten more creative, and as always there are more or less workable ways of doing it.

One of the more creative strategies has been to create series that are in fact their own products.

Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic on Castle
American Idol is always implicitly pushing its contestants’ iTunes singles, and every episode of Glee can be seen as effectively one long scripted commercial for its never-ending series of albums, all available for purchase. (A simple search on iTunes for “Glee” calls up more than 1,000 individual singles, all available for instant download for the low, low price of $1.29 Canadian. I imagine the results for a comparable search for “America Idol” would be even longer.) My personal favourite is the way that ABC’s Castle’s has Richard Castle regularly plugging his novels or their graphic novel adaptations. I’m willing to go on record as having read and enjoyed all the books and the comics, and I don’t really see how this compromises the entertainment value of any of these series for those who continue to watch and enjoy them, and moreover even bring added value to devoted fans.

The other much more common and obvious way is to integrate those brands and products into the show itself – in more or less subtle ways, like in the cars characters drive or the cell phones they use. This, for me, is rarely a problem. And in fact, we all live in such a brand-saturated universe, that the absence of name brands is often more distracting than their presence. Consider those roomfuls of Dell or Mac laptops with their logos clumsily taped over or that inevitable moment in almost every crime procedural when the detective sits down at the computer and opens to some generic search engine – often ‘AskWeb’ or ‘Websearch’ or something – when by last account over 85 percent of all web searches begin with Google. (Though if you are a watching an NBC show, chances are the character will open to Bing because of long standing partnership between Microsoft and NBC Universal. Bing’s efforts to penetrate our TV screens often borders on the absurd, and I can’t help but reminded of J. Michael Straczynski’s gag ‘Zima’ sign in an early episode of Babylon 5 whenever a TV character uses Bing as a verb.) But personally I find my suspension of disbelief interrupted when TV characters appear to operate in some kind of parallel universe without Google and Facebook. Last year, the launch of new iPad was essentially the A-plot of an entire episode of Modern Family. It not only made perfect sense that Phil would be excited about it, but it also made for very funny television.

The Big Bang Theory eagerly plugs DC and Marvel superheroes, and any of a number of films and other TV shows, and these are entirely organic to the lives of the characters (and it is highly doubtful that DC has solicited Chuck Lorre for the visibility of the Green Lantern and Flash t-shirts Sheldon continues to wear, though no doubt legality demanded that these copyrighted images be given the green light before getting on screen). The pixelated t-shirts that permeated every reality show testify to the effort required to get permissions for such images.

A scene from Warehouse 13
But for every subtle – and even productive – integration of brands into the stories and sets (whether they are paid for by sponsors or not), there are egregious examples. Recently, I was catching up on the current season of Warehouse 13 – a show I genuinely enjoy, and which is often a delightful light sci-fi romp – and this gem comes out of the mouth of Warehouse Agent Steve Jinx’s mouth: “Hey have you checked out this car’s Entunes™ system? It’s got Bing and Pandora…” You can literally hear the word capitalized in the dialogue. (You didn’t know that the new Prius includes Toyota’s exciting new multimedia interface? Well, now you do.) This moment is frankly embarrassing for the show, the SyFy Network as a whole, and certainly for Aaron Ashmore who delivers the line like he can barely believe he’s saying it, and that he has to deliver it to Saul Rubinek (who, even in the show’s 4th season still exudes more gravitas than most of the actors on television combined) doesn’t help matters either. There is product integration, and there is stopping a narrative cold in mid-step to deliver a message from their sponsors. That Castle consistently calls attention to Richard Castle’s Windows Phone is notable, but hardly distracting. Even The Wire (which told a story seemingly designed to make viewers want to stop buying anything at all, ever) apparently had some pointed integration of Verizon cell phones and Dunkin’ Donuts. I didn’t notice at the time, and frankly the information does little to change my feelings about the series. Most shows know the difference, and more often then not, the products sits quietly in the background without calling attention to themselves, and certainly not calling our attention from the story at hand.

A recent episode of New Girl also crossed the line. The story has the recently unemployed Jess (Zooey Deschanel) try her hand modeling at a car show. The sequence – Jess in excessively high heels trying and failing to stay upright on a spinning platform – goes on for two full minutes, and the entire time a spokesman lists all the exciting new features of the new Ford Focus. While it has some genuine slapstick appeal, I couldn’t help shaking my head at the utter shamelessness of it.

Community's Dean (Jim Rash) and "Subway" (Travis Schuldt)
There are also some stars of this new era of brand integration: for example, NBC’s Chuck (whose on-screen embrace of the Subway sandwich brand actually allowed fans to keep the struggling show on the air for at least two seasons longer), or the stunningly meta-subversive product placement episode of Community (also, notably, with Subway). But the two break-out heroes are clearly 30 Rock and Stephen Colbert.

Whether it’s Snapple, the brilliant “Can we have our money now?” Verizon plug, or Cisco Systems, 30 Rock has long led the way in scripted television for self-aware product placement. For all that though, 30 Rock has ‘integrated’ dozens of brands over the years, from Burger King to IKEA and of course, the most blatant of all, the NBC brand itself. But what fan would deny that this is part is what makes the show so amazingly funny and clever?

And Stephen Colbert, and The Colbert Report, takes this to another level altogether, with his perennial promotion of his flavour of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (an act of product integration that crossed shows and networks with his ‘feud’ with Jimmy Fallon), his regular and exaggerated on-screen enjoyment of Bud Lite Lime, or the Doritos sponsorship of his 2008 election reports, the so-called “Hail to the Cheese Stephen Colbert's Nacho Cheese Doritos 2008 Presidential Campaign Coverage”. These unrepentant plugs are entirely in line with his on-screen persona, while simultaneously commenting on the insidious nature of precisely those forms of advertising. It is both profitable and subversive, and in many ways a perfect example of how satire works.

Product placement isn’t going anywhere. Even if there was a hypothetical shift into all new forms of media, the fact that we can fast-forward through commercials means that the only way to get us to watch is to integrate product promotion somehow into our shows. But some shows do it right, and some shows do it wrong – and for those shows that manage to get it right, the effect is definitely worth the effort.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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