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Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” snipes at (and promotes) product placement

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

November 17th, 2007

Earlier this month, as a petulant and pointed snipe at NBC for forcing most of their programs for a week to incorporate a “green” message regardless of whether such themes would be relevant to individual comedies and dramas, Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” bit the ankles of her network’s parent company, General Electric, with an episode built around “Greenzo… America’s first non-judgmental, business-friendly environmental advocate.” True to that mandate, the character starts out parroting company lines like, “The free market will solve global warming — if that even exists” and tells “Today Show” viewers that to save the environment, “kids, you can tell your parents to buy a GE front-loading washing machine to save water.”

As Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donagee gloats with restrained glee, Greenzo is the superhero mascot of NBC’s “new company-wide global eco-initiative; we’re going green…so we can drain the remainder of [the Earth’s] resources [by] pitting all the divisions of the company against each other to see who can make the most money from this environmentalism trend.”

But later, when Greenzo finds eco-religion and starts denouncing corporate pollution, industrial waste and any manner of anti-environmental sins on the part of GE and its subsidiaries, Donagee is livid. “You listen to me, Redzo, you either get on board or you’re gonna wake up on that island with Phil Donahue and the electric car, you understand me?!”

There’s always a fine line between using satire to expose something particularly problematic about a subject, and using parody to reinforce the problem supposedly being mocked. This is especially true with marketing-related satire at a time when advertisers believe that saturation of their brand through any means necessary is immensely lucrative — regardless of whether that saturation is achieved through negative or unflattering messages, as Anne Elizabeth Moore documents in her new book, Unmarketable. But in their “go, go green!” episode, though “30 Rock” did offer NBC’s parent the carrot of repeated in-show plugs for specific GE appliances, it also didn’t spare their bosses the stick, managing to send up product placement, corporate media censorship, cross-promotional excess, superficial activism by self-righteous actors and Al Gore, for good measure… all in the name of complying with NBC’s cynical green initiative. (Why cynical, you ask? Hmm… even if we leave aside GE’s rank among the very top of this country’s most toxic companies and their history of dumping PCBs in the Hudson River, consider the amount of environmentally unfriendly jetfuel squandered just to fly “Today Show” anchors Matt Lauer, Al Roker and Ann Curry to Greenland, Ecuador and Antarctica, respectively, for an ends-of-the-earth publicity stunt higher in buzz than news value.)

Of all the shows participating in NBC’s green week, it was Tiny Fey that “30 Rock’ed” it out of the park. But where the sitcom rode the right side of the satirical line when they went gonzo with Greenzo, the laugher left a less than pleasant taste in my mouth this week with another attempt to mock product placement that, instead, just served to make the suits at a certain phone company mighty happy:

Baldwin’s Jack Donagee: These Verizon Wireless phones are just so popular, I accidentally grabbed one belonging to an acquaintance.

Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon: Well, sure, cause that Verizon Wireless service is just unbeatable. I mean, if I saw a phone like that on TV, I’d be like, where is my nearest retailer, so I can get one?

Fey, turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall: Can we have our money, now?

Does this kind of self-referential nod to the annoying intrusion that is product placement seem amusing, hip, ironic? It’s meant to. Does negatively critiquing it as potentially just as (or more) damaging than other forms of advertising make me seem stodgy, humorless, over-sensitive? It’s meant to do that, too.

For decades, now, “anti-advertising,” irony and even mock self-flagellation have been strategic marketing devices utilized by companies that want to position themselves positively with — and get under the critical defenses of — those of us who believe ourselves to be above the influence of advertising, or those who simply detest the manipulation of the form. Advertising critic Jean Kilbourne has written extensively on this subject (check out this Salon interview I did with Jean a few years back for more), as has WIMN’s Voices blogger Anne Elizabeth Moore in her new book, Unmarketable.

I don’t doubt that Fey and her fellow writers have scorn for product placement. But I’d bet cash money that this amusing little scene was not the result of the writers’ burning desire to mock brand integration via the repeated use of a specific brand in dialog and plot points, but in some way related to the lucrative business relationship between NBC and Verizon (anyone feel like digging through Advertising Age or the like to confirm this?).

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