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Triumph of the Shill, Part 2

Reality TV Lets Marketers Write the Script

by Jennifer L. Pozner

Published in Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture, Issue 24, Spring 2004 | Part I

Here's how you make an Absolut Hunk martini: Add four parts famous-brand vanilla vodka, one part simple syrup, one part fresh lime juice, a splash of pineapple juice, and one giant heaping of product placement.

Last year, on Sex and the City, PR diva Samantha landed her aspiring-actor lover a starring role in an ad campaign for a well-known liquor company. Samantha and her friends salaciously sipped Absolut Hunk martinis as the campaign took off, and a beefcake shot of the boy toy stripped down, oiled up, and wearing nothing but a strategically placed vodka bottle was plastered on billboards and bus shelters all over the show’s New York setting.

Just as Steven Spielberg used real-life firm 3 Ring Circus to craft futuristic commercials for Lexus, Reebok, and other sponsors for use in Minority Report (see "Triumph of the Shill, Part 1," no. 23), according to Newsday, Sex and the City’s producers approached Absolut — not the other way around — and ceded the creative process to the vodka peddler’s ad shop, TBWA/Chiat/Day.

The resulting publicity was all too typical of the merging of news, entertainment, and public relations in today’s media market. Headlines such as the Arizona Republic’s "'City' Slickers; Bid Adieu To Carrie & Co. With Your Own Sippin’ Party" helped the Absolut Hunk martini travel from the boob tube to the bar scene, while the Washington Post, Newsday, and other outlets printed the recipe so readers could make the cocktail at home. And without spending one red cent for prime-time spots or print spreads, Absolut managed the ultimate score: During Katie Couric’s interview with Absolut Hunk actor Jason Lewis, NBC’s Today mimicked Sex and the City and digitally inserted the hottie’s ad in Times Square as if it were an actual, real-life billboard.

Corporate sponsors have long lorded their lucre over television networks, using their purchasing power to promote programs they consider worthy and threatening to withhold ad buys to squelch content they deem controversial (or geared toward the nonwhite, low-income, or aging demographics undesirable to them). But product placement exacerbates advertisers’ already-active influence over what we watch, see, and hear in sitcoms, dramas, and reality TV — not to mention radio, film, video games, and even broadcast journalism.

With the arrival of brand integration, advertisers no longer have to rely on veiled financial blackmail — or even commercial breaks — to get their messages through. Instead, marketers are weaving their products and services directly into the plots of popular TV shows, where not even the most careful TiVo jockey can fast-forward through them.

It’s not just that sets and characters are subtly dressed with recognizable brands, as in years past. This sort of scenic plug certainly still exists, more blatantly than ever: Close-ups of Sydney Bristow’s Nokia cell phone are common on ABC’s Alias, while over on Fox, Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 character drives a manly Ford Expedition; shots of sponsors’ goods are ubiquitous on almost all reality shows, from The Bachelor’s fridge full of Pepsi to the picture phones used by aspiring singers on American Idol and lovelorn losers on Joe Millionaire.

But product placement also makes its way into dialogue, as when the romantic lead of the WB’s short-lived 2000 series Young Americans, whose production was funded by Coca-Cola, interrupted a tender moment to ask the object of his puppy love, "Will you pass me a Coke?" The ever-popular makeover genre gives Queer Eye for the Straight Guy’s Fab Five the perfect platform to pose, praise, and primp with Neutrogena sunless tanner, Norelco nose-hair trimmers, Redken pomade, and a wide range of other name-brand beauty, fashion, and interior-design products, all of which are aggressively promoted in “shopping guides” on Bravo’s website. (Apparently, all this shilling is motivating men to the malls: As reported in several newspapers, a survey by pr firm Jericho Communications, unaffiliated with the show, found that "men were five times more likely than women to go shopping" on a Wednesday after a new Queer Eye episode aired, and respondents said they’d be most likely to purchase products endorsed by Carson Kressley, QE’s fashion expert, than any other celebrity.)

Daytime TV, meanwhile, resembles nothing so much as the Home Shopping Network. Viewers can wake up to Katie Couric telling NBC audiences where they can buy must-have fall fashions; then listen to Ellen DeGeneres read promotional copy for cruises, home spa treatments, and other gifts she bestows on her talk-show audience; and spend the afternoon watching Oprah chow down on Costco’s chicken pot pies and gush over Isaac Mizrahi’s clothing line for Target.

And, most dangerously, celebrities are being stealthily hired to tout branded drugs and risky medical procedures on the talk-TV circuit — as when Carnie Wilson hyped gastric-bypass surgery on Good Morning America without disclosing that she was paid for her endorsement.

The last several years have seen brand integration rise to brazen new levels. Entire episodes of popular programs are being crafted for companies that aren’t satisfied with simple set dressing or one-off dialogue plugs. A January 2000 episode of Friends revolved around Rachel’s desire to sneak mass-produced pseudo-antiques past roommate Phoebe, who objected to chain furniture franchises sucking individuality from people’s homes. By the close of the half hour, Pottery Barn’s name was plugged (and praised) more than a dozen times, and Phoebe was so smitten with their tables, lamps, linens, and tchotchkes that she just had to buy their wares for herself.

Even those producers who refuse to sell their sets or scripts to corporate sponsors can find, over time, that resistance is futile. The ad industry is fighting back against TiVo and other ad-skip technology by altering pre-existing content in ways that could threaten the visual and editorial integrity of programming. Products that didn’t originally exist, such as a soda can in a cop’s hand or a logo on a high-schooler’s t-shirt, can be digitally inserted into TV reruns. A rep from Princeton Video Imaging, the tech gurus behind "virtual advertising," told the Detroit News, "Our technology allows you to insert Coke in one episode, then Pepsi [the next time it shows], then Dr. Pepper in the third. It gives the seller the chance to monetize that real estate over and over again."

Even more disturbing than marketers plundering our programming for "monetizing opportunities" is the newest trend: content created for the sole purpose of pushing products. On the premiere of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, a group of designers were given a week to remodel the house of a suburban, middle-class family whose rosy-cheeked little daughter survived leukemia. Cameras captured the family cavorting at a name-brand vacation resort while the team, led by Trading Spaces toolmaster Ty Pennington, renovated their home with Craftsman tools, stocked their kitchen with Kenmore appliances, and filled their living room with electronics from Toshiba, Panasonic, and Sony—all of which were available for purchase from a Sears-sponsored, link-filled "As Featured On" section of ABC.com (which viewers were prompted to visit at the end of the program).

The sentimental climax came when the young cancer survivor gasped with glee at the life-size dollhouse Pennington had built for her. The happiness on that brave little girl’s face, Pennington mused, is what this was all about.

Well ... not quite. EM: Home is about what most reality TV series are about: manufacturing poor excuses for entertainment around sponsors’ goods. According to the New York Times, EM: Home was the most lucrative branded-entertainment deal ABC has ever inked, with Sears paying more than $1 million for narrative integration in each of the six episodes, as well as purchasing commercials during each hour.

Brand integration is largely responsible for the reality-TV genre as we know it today, and not vice versa. Widely acknowledged as the instigator of both the current reality craze and the ubiquity of product placement, Survivor was only greenlighted after executive producer Mark Burnett explained to CBS that instead of the network paying actors, advertisers would pay the network for a starring role. In the words of Advertising Age, Burnett "envision[ed] 'Survivor' as a commercial vehicle as much as a TV drama." The adventure theme is simply a pretext for contestants to interact with brands such as Doritos, Mountain Dew, Bud Light, and Saturn, to the tune of more than $3.7 million each for the initial series and $12 million for the second installment, with the price tag rising exponentially each season.

That may seem pricey, but as the head of sales for CBS told Advertising Age, it was "one of the best bargains in TV history." In addition to months of prime-time exposure to viewers who can’t tune out product plugs without losing track of the action, advertisers use Survivor imagery in their marketing campaigns and get added exposure from countless clips played on news and infotainment programs.

This phenomenon was even more unabashed on NBC’s The Restaurant, an "unscripted drama" that followed celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito as he harangued waitstaff, trained line cooks, and schmoozed customers in a carefully edited quest to launch a Manhattan eatery over six prime-time hours in the summer of 2003. (The show will return this summer.) The series was crafted by Burnett, conceived by Ben Silverman (the self-described "media synergist" responsible for ABC’s product-laced Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), and produced by Silverman’s production company, Reveille, and Magna Global Entertainment, a branded-entertainment development wing of media giant Interpublic that is "dedicated to the creation of original television programming that is funded by and serves the needs of Interpublic’s clients."

In this case, according to the New York Post, Magna clients Coors, American Express, and Mitsubishi paid between $4 and $6 million in development and advertising for story-driving presence in The Restaurant. NBC didn’t have to pay a dime for the series — all the networks had to do was save half the commercial time during the show’s run for the sponsors, and reap cross-promotional benefits from AmEx ads starring DiSpirito.

No wonder the main item on The Restaurant’s menu was a hot, steaming plate of product placement. Logo-studded opening credits featured an AmEx "Open" sign on the door, along with customers charging meals to their AmEx cards. DiSpirito talked shop in his Mitsubishi Endeavor, invited the bouncy Coors Twins to the restaurant’s opening, and issued stilted commands to his employees—some reportedly dubbed in by producers—such as "Don’t come back without Coors for all these people." ("I will forever be trained to hold a Coors Light bottle by the neck with the label facing outwards," Albert Davis, the restaurant’s espresso maker, told the Baltimore Sun.)

Despite the heavy-handed dialogue and conspicuously brand-conscious camera work, Restaurant insiders spun the shilling as seamless. Silverman told the Hollywood Reporter that product placement was "organic to the concept," "fit in naturally," and "even lent credibility to the environment."

But like most product placement proponents, their enthusiasm was disingenuous: In one interview, Burnett defended the series’ creative purity ("The whole show was unscripted. Every story line was organic and raw," he told Newsday); in the next, he admitted to the Hollywood Reporter that brand integration is "a very good business move" because it offers "a great opportunity for sponsors to have more control" over content. Burnett told Daily Variety that his "future is dramatic television like this," because these shows are "the next evolution of storytelling." Magna’s Robert Riesenberg sang the same tune in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The kind of organic product integration found in 'The Restaurant' represents a bold new era in television."

This bold new era may soon define scripted programming as well. That’s the theory behind a sitcom pilot — produced for close to a million bucks by Viacom, Sony Entertainment, and Anonymous Content — which would star Plato, the puffy purple creature from Sony Walkman commercials, as he tries to fit in at college. If any network picks up the series, it will probably be due to the show’s appealingly discounted licensing fee, made possible by Sony’s investment. Still, executive producer Lenny Bekerman insists that there is "no mandate" to put Sony gadgets in the show. "It’s not a 22-minute commercial," he told NPR’s Marketplace. "It’s a stand-alone television series."

But if an alien from an electronics ad gets his own series, how can it possibly be anything but a sitcom-length commercial? Official mandate or no, if produced, Plato will exist primarily to sell the Sony-product lifestyle to young adults, as Bekerman explained: "We’re not going to see [Sony electronics] because they’re blatant or they’re product placement, we’re going to see them because...every college student would wear a Walkman or have a stereo in their room or have a laptop."

If these trends continue unabated, entertainment crafted around commercial messages will replace traditional narrative. Eric Yaverbaum, president of Jericho, the firm that conducted the Queer Eye shopping survey, can’t wait. "Sitcoms are not blatant ads, which makes them much better sales vehicles. Look at a Target or a Wal-Mart — why don’t they have their own show? I don’t know if it will take another decade for it to happen, but it will happen," he said in a phone interview. The line between commerce and content has degraded to such a degree that by 2002, BMW had launched a DirecTV channel on which all programs feature BMW automobiles.

In their March 2003 Monthly Review essay "The Commercial Tidal Wave," Robert W. McChesney and John Bellamy Foster note that because 80 percent of U.S. ad spending is funneled through the eight largest conglomerates that own advertising agencies, the clout of companies like Interpublic—which brought us The Restaurant—has grown, "which gives them considerable ability to name their tune with corporate media firms more than willing to play ball."

Among many examples McChesney and Foster point to is a series of top-level meetings held in 2000 by USA Network, in which major advertisers were invited to "tell the network what type of programming content they wanted." When networks manufacture content to meet advertisers’ needs and advertisers give content to networks for free, it’s a win-win for marketers and big media—but viewers are losing big. "We’re trying to create marketing platforms through television for our clients," Riesenberg told the Philadelphia Daily News. "It’s not at all about making better television. We don’t profess to be able to do it better. It’s really about finding that right fit, and then integrating them into that fit."

The biggest of all the myths promoted by reality TV is that these programs exist simply because the public demands them, as "proven" by ratings. It’s not nearly that simple: Behind Survivor’s long-term, landscape-shifting impact was the relentless promotion of the series by CBS’s parent company, Viacom. To generate buzz, more than 100 affiliate radio stations ran segments, including dozens of drive-time interviews with Burnett (which folks could listen to while driving past Viacom-owned billboards for the show), while 16 of CBS’s TV stations and Viacom’s MTV and VH1 covered Survivor as if its ins and outs were news. Eventually, Entertainment Tonight and a slew of other infotainment programs jumped on the bandwagon, interviewing booted contestants (after they had appeared on CBS’s Early Show, of course), a practice that has become de rigueur for broadcast tabloids and respected news outlets alike.

The PR blitzkrieg made it appear as though there were overwhelming yet spontaneous popular interest in the show; all the biggest reality series have achieved their spectacular popularity by replicating Survivor’s strategy of multiplatform media attention, product integration, and public relations. That’s the dirty little secret behind the corporate media contention that they are bombarding us with ad-rich, quality-poor reality shows simply because that’s supposedly what the public wants.

This cross-promotional strategy extends not only to the shows themselves but to their stars. Take, for example, Eden’s Crush, a 2001 marketing scheme–turned–WB show–turned–girl group created to test the power of the AOL Time Warner empire. The show was Popstars, and girls at home were encouraged to identify with the hundreds of contestants competing to become Spice Girls clones. Though the show also pushed Salon Selectives hair-care products, on this American Idol precursor the wanna-be pop stars themselves were the ultimate product placement.

"You can’t buy that kind of advertising," producer David Foster told the St. Petersburg Times, not acknowledging that the entire series was one long ad. Warner Music Group chairman Roger Ames saw it slightly differently, calling the WB tie-in "a huge running start" for future record sales and a "dream come true," because "even if you could buy all the advertising in the world, there’s the difference between advertising and editorial, and this is editorial."

The value of the media time given to the yet-unformed group was estimated to be at least $20 million. Because of the built-in fan base sure to result from so many hours of "editorial" exposure on network TV, Warner’s London/Sire Records inked a recording contract before the band had a name — or even singers. Not until the songs were written, the show placed in the prime-time lineup, and the pre- and postproduction planned were the artists plugged in, like an afterthought. Once selected, Eden’s Crush appeared on WB affiliate news stations in New York and Chicago, guest-starred on the WB’s Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, were featured on the Warner Brothers–syndicated infotainment show Extra, and conducted an AOL live chat. The group’s first single sold more than 200,000 copies right out of the gate.

By the time this format was rehashed with American Idol, the infotainment circuit, primed by several seasons of reality hype, was hungry for any information Fox would give. Outtakes ran on every channel, seemingly at every hour, for months — especially on Fox itself — with clips, contestant interviews, and Idol gossip as a daily mainstay. Hundreds of kids were humiliated, insta-celebrity was bestowed upon several nominally talented contestants, millions of home viewers subscribed to AT&T wireless to vote for their favorite singer, and eventual winner Kelly Clarkson appeared everywhere. All that cross-promotion guaranteed both ratings gold for Fox and an astonishing debut for Clarkson’s single, which broke the Beatles’ record for fastest-ever rise to number one on the Billboard charts. "I was like, How did that happen?" Clarkson exclaimed, a bit dazed, on an Idol reunion show.

Gee, I wonder.

Watching American Idol is like sitting through an endless, commercialized hall of mirrors—it’s a real-life version of the over-the-top product placement in Josie and the Pussycats (see Triumph of the Shill, Part 1, issue no. 23). Fox has reaped millions by making Idol wanna-bes literally do backflips over corporate logos, gulp Coke, shampoo with Herbal Essences, and drive Ford Focuses in mini-commercials disguised as music videos. The contestants who succeed are as much commodities as the products they hawk: Clarkson’s humble, aw-shucks personality helped her win the Idol title, but by the time she promoted her single "Miss Independent" during the show’s second season, the producers attempted to remake her hair, makeup, and persona in Christina Aguilera’s sexed-up image.

"Image" was the euphemism mean-spirited judge Simon Cowell used every time he told Kimberly Locke, an African-American contestant who made it to third place during Idol’s second season, that her sultry voice couldn’t compensate for her too-big body and "weird" (read: black) hair. (Cowell didn’t stop haranguing Locke until she relaxed her hair, offering this evaluation of her singing ability after she sang with straight locks: "Kimberly, ever since you got rid of that weird hair, you got better. Because you look cute, now.")

If current trends continue, this tyranny of image — and the way it seeks to strip away what little diversity exists in mass media — will only worsen. Media insiders say the future of scripted television is an immediate, interactive model in which viewers will be able to instantly purchase products they see on their favorite shows. For six months in 2002, Days of Our Lives and Passions fans who admired, say, the nightie some soap vixen wore while she seduced her evil twin’s fiancé could score one of their very own by tuning into ShopNBC’s "Soap Style," a pilot arrangement in which items featured on the soaps were sold on NBC’s shopping channel and website, helped along by guest appearances from soap stars.

Jericho ’s Yaverbaum told Bitch he predicts "a scrolling ticker at the bottom of every show. It’ll be like this: You like the bed Frasier’s sleeping in? Buy it at X furniture store." His advice to marketers: "It’s obvious. Television has this captive audience — people think these people are real, they want to be like them. Let them know directly that these characters are wearing your fashions and you’ll sell like crazy the next day. Cut the network in on your sales and everybody will make a whole lot of money."

Brilliant from a business standpoint, this model has serious implications for programming. One-look-fits-all casting will worsen, as will the homogeneity and vapidity of storylines. Considering how steadfastly fashion advertisers cling to young anorexics as the female ideal, average-size and older actresses will find it even harder to score roles once shows are designed to sell clothes off characters’ backs.

Let’s say Pottery Barn creates a family drama that revolves around a set full of their furniture: What are the chances that abortion or racial profiling would be discussed by characters whose main function is to showcase a trendy couch? Dozens of years and mergers ago, before commercialism so thoroughly permeated every aspect of media content, television occasionally gave difficult social issues the dramatic treatment they deserved. But a groundbreaking miniseries like Roots wouldn’t happen in the TV future Yaverbaum imagines, since advertisers aren’t interested in the horror of slave owners branding human beings—they’re only interested in positive branding opportunities.

Potentially quality content is already being pushed out of the way to make room for programming built around embedded ads. By February 2003, Fox had devoted 41 percent and ABC a third of its sweeps offerings to reality shows. Scripted shows other than established franchises like Law & Order and CSI are finding it increasingly difficult to survive. Sally Field’s 2002 series The Court, about a female Supreme Court justice, was yanked after only three episodes; the laugh track–less Andy Richter Controls the Universe was canned before it was ever allowed to develop an audience. The same fate befell last fall’s detective drama Karen Cisco, which many critics felt had promise; it was replaced by Extreme Makeover, EM: Home, The Bachelorette, and Celebrity Mole.

Discussing the greed that governs such programming decisions, Bernie Mac producer Larry Wilmore told Entertainment Weekly that despite his show winning an Emmy and a slate of other awards in its first season, Fox has regularly preempted Mac in favor of ratings draws like Joe Millionaire. "Now, this is an award-winning, groundbreaking show. Let alone, when was the last time a black show has been in that position?" Wilmore asked. "They don’t care.... They’ll pull us for whatever reality show brings that 30 share." And even when a reality series is likely to be a ratings flop (anyone remember Are You Hot?), the comparatively small investment involved means that networks still consider such fodder less risky than nurturing expensive scripted fare.

As advertisers seek broader, deeper, and more direct control over media content than they had even in the early days of television (when soap operas actually sold soap to housewives), defenders of brand integration claim their opponents are misguided Chicken Littles, fearing falling sky where no danger exists. According to Madison Avenue execs and network reps, we needn’t worry our pretty little heads about the ads that populate our programs because TV is simply returning to its golden age. Since branded entertainment wasn’t so bad in the ’50s, they ask, what real harm could it possibly pose today?

Though seductive, this argument is not just factually specious but historically unsophisticated. For example, tobacco advertising contributed to widespread health problems among the TV-watching and moviegoing population during those "simpler days" when the Marlboro Man was a trusted friend. The real difference between then and now is one of scope: Advertiser-controlled content is more threatening today than at any prior point because of the sheer breadth and inescapable power of our modern mediated landscape. Yesteryear’s housewives could turn off "their stories" if they were annoyed by silly soap jingles.

Today, it’s nearly impossible to tune out the commercials woven into hundreds of TV shows, blockbuster films, music and talk-radio programs; thousands of mass-market magazines and newspaper stories; and millions of Internet sites. Media consolidation compounds the problem, as corporate media owners increasingly consider artistic vision and cultural relevance extraneous to their pursuit of astronomical profits.

Yet among the most disturbing aspects of brand integration is the ho-hum response it too often fetches. Why should we care about product placement degrading content, we wonder, when TV has become so bland, risk-free, and hackneyed that a show like According to Jim is an ABC mainstay? It’s an understandable reaction to media that have so consistently frustrated, alienated, and disappointed us. But if we care at all about independent thought and cultural diversity, we must demand that programming improve, not accept its commercial erosion with a sigh.

Advertisers are banking on our apathy in their slow quest to condition us to become the very shopping-obsessed drones parodied in Josie and the Pussycats. As one product-placement expert told the Boston Globe, viewers will grow accustomed to hypercommercialism before, during, and after TV shows because "it’s a matter of time.... What may seem intrusive today will likely be normal five years from now."

This is deeply disturbing, and not only in terms of its negative effects on entertainment. Advertising is profoundly manipulative at its core. Its imagery strives to deprive us of realistic ideas about love, beauty, health, money, work, childhood, and more in an attempt to convince us that only products can bring us true joy; numerous studies show that the more ads we view, the worse we feel about ourselves. How much worse will this psychological exploitation become when woven directly into our narratives?

The stronger a foothold advertisers gain over entertainment — whether they peddle their influence through old-school ad buys or new-school product placement — the more power they have to define our collective values, and the more poisonous media images of women are becoming. Nothing demonstrates this more blatantly than the piggish reality genre: Joe Millionaire’s entire premise is that women are evil gold diggers who deserve to be lied to and humiliated for our collective enjoyment; on America’s Next Top Model, nearly nude teen girls are berated by judges for sounding too smart when they speak and being "plus sized" at 5'10" and 135 pounds.

Mike Darnell, Fox’s reality guru and the brains behind Joe Millionaire and its progenitor, Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, once told Entertainment Weekly that his dream project would be a beauty pageant featuring female prisoners: "You give them a chance to get a makeover, and it’s a 40-share special."

I can see it now: Corporations using prison labor could present themselves as socially responsible businesses rehabilitating incarcerated women via telemarketing and product-assembly skills. Connie Convict, an unkempt, underfed inmate who spends her day booking American Airlines reservations and bagging Starbucks espresso beans, could emerge as a beauty queen, with a little help from some benevolent cosmetics line: "Maybe she found it behind bars...maybe it’s Maybelline!"

Unless we get serious about product placement — collectively, and quickly — we shouldn’t be shocked if "Miss San Quentin" sashays her way to prime time.


Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and director of Women In Media & News (WIMN), watched way too much reality TV while researching this series. So much, in fact, that she developed a multimedia presentation on the topic, called "Bachelor Babes, Bridezillas & Husband-Hunting Harems: Decoding Reality TV’s Twisted Fairy Tales," which she’s brought to college campuses across the country. To learn more about WIMN, or to schedule a lecture or media training, e-mail director@WIMNonline.org.

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