In Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, Laurie Steed described the strange fate of NBC‘s ‘Chuck’. Here, Laurie examines further television’s Faustian pact with advertising.
I have an agreement with television: it can sell me stuff as long as I can watch entertaining, innovative programming. To reiterate, I will endure sporadic spruiking as thanks for free access to a cornucopia of plots, characters and conflicts.
For me, advertisements are like Charlie Sheen: annoying and offensive, but ultimately an essential part of what makes free-to-air television viable.
With traditional ad sales declining, television is resorting to new types of brand integration. Product placement, which in layman’s terms is the placing of branded material in a context usually devoid of advertisements, has been the standard approach for decades. Put into practice, it looks like this:
A 2006 survey by the US-based Association of National Advertisers cited various reasons for choosing product placement over traditional advertising. These ranged from creating a ‘stronger emotional connection’, to the targeting of a specific group. In other words, it’s not enough to sell stuff during the ad breaks; they want the shows themselves to be compelling, immutable advertisements.
But where do we draw the line? Recent episodes of NBC’s Chuck saw major corporate sponsors inserted into narratives and even given storylines. A case in point was season four episode ‘Chuck vs. The Masquerade’, where Chuck’s sister Ellie and her husband Devon visit mega retail outlet ‘Buy More’ to find something to help their baby sleep. Soon after, they find the perfect product, Cloud B’s ‘Sleep Sheep’. (You can view the scene here.)
After the episode screened in the US, Cloud B and fan site Chuck TV offered viewers a 50% discount on any ‘Sleep Sheep’ purchase in return for ‘liking’ the Sleep Sheep on Facebook. Soon after, Chuck TV again encouraged fans to purchase the product in support of Chuck.
Fans of the show were starting to get used to this. The series only reached a third season thanks to a sponsorship deal with Subway restaurants, which dictated ‘significant integration into the show’. Put simply, this meant plot lines about Subway sandwiches. Prior to the show’s renewal, fans were urged to visit Subway and ‘show their support’, which they did, buying footlongs, drinks and cookies in the hope they’d given Chuck another life.
This is not all that surprising for a show like Chuck; it’s in part a series about commercial interests, so an element of corporate crossover is inevitable given the show’s initial premise and indeed, many scenes are set in the Buy More. But what about an older program like The Cosby Show? Surely content produced without product placement is impervious from such commercial hijacking? Well, no, not according to companies like Mirriad.
Mirriad is a digital product placement facilitator. It inserts brands into previously recorded films and TV shows. Here, the agreement comes not from a contemporary merging of company and advertiser, but from a realignment of non-commercial content with commercial products. The end result is a visually stunning, product heavy montage. Or to put it another way, it’s Forrest Gump: now with extra ads.
Mirriad has already signed a deal with Channel Seven, with more networks likely to follow suit. What then, for the future of television? Can the viewer help define an engaging, culturally relevant medium? Well, I guess that depends. How much are you willing to pay for the privilege?
– Laurie Steed’s essay, ‘Revenge of the Nerd: Fetish, Fantasy and Chuck’ appears in Kill Your Darlings Issue Six.