Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brand Integration, 30 Rock, and the "Responsible" Point of View

I tend to keep a few magazines piled up on my desk at work—ones that feature stories I want to read, but aren’t so pressing that I take them home. I had about four that were there for months, and finally decided, since they were at that point where no one else would want them either, to take them home.

I was looking through the newest one, a New York with David Patterson on the cover, dating from October that I had plucked to read a Times story, when I came across a hidden treasure: “What Tina Fey Would do for a SoyJoy”, written by a fave of mine, Emily Nussbaum. It’s about brand integration in television shows, and specifically discusses 30 Rock and MadTV, two shows that have been on my mind recently.

Television is expensive to produce, and ratings are going down, down, down. So what are TV execs to do to make money? Introduce brands inside the programming. This has gone on for some time—dating back to the early days of TV—and it’s been controversial for nearly all that time, too. But advertising is hot property (just look at shows about advertising, Mad Men and the forthcoming Trust Me), and stories about ads also enable the producers to use real products to tell those stories.

Websites and magazine features connect viewers with the brands their favorite characters wear, so why not just have the characters say what they’re wearing? But that’s hard to do well. A big deal was made a few years ago when Alias and Ford struck a deal requiring the characters to constantly call attention to the vehicle. It made a mockery of the program, taking everyone out of the action; it was so obviously an ad that had an expensive budget and story tied to it that the idea of a television show seemed besides the point.

30 Rock is a case study here; Nussbaum frames the show as the tension between art and commerce, exemplified by Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy. This is also where the set up for many of the jokes come from, all meant to give double the laughs since they’re satirizing many things at once:

In the show’s fifth episode, Donaghy talks with Lemon about integrating brands. “I’m sorry, you’re saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?” Liz asks.

JACK: Look, I know how this sounds.

LIZ: No, come on, Jack. We’re not doing that. We’re not compromising the integrity of the show to sell—

PETE: Wow. This is Diet Snapple?

LIZ: I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?

30 Rock has done this a few times, notably with Verizon. But while it’s a wink-wink to the audience and the advertisers, it still leaves a somewhat queasy aftertaste—yeah, you’re shilling, you’re just being tongue-in-cheek about it. Fey has said that she wants to point it out to her audience always, but as the article makes clear, that isn’t always possible, and in fact, one brand prominently displayed was widely believed to be a fake: SoyJoy. The integration didn’t really work, since no one actually realized it was a brand, and the brand itself didn’t get the boost it was looking for, since it wasn’t placed within the series as they wanted it. They were an afterthought, squeezed into the story for the sake of commerce. Not always the best way to get a brand mention.

But these kinds of jokes get old quickly, as Joss Whedon points out: “You can’t do it again and be cute, because then it’s a different type of shilling. Eventually you realize the reason they’re making a joke is because there’s something abhorrent going on.”

I don’t mind brand integration it as long as it works within the story. I am a story purist. It’s all about verisimilitude. The problem is, whether or not a brand is used in storytelling it tends to be noticed if it’s prominent enough in the scene. I’ve seen Seinfeld episodes where Jerry has a box of generic corn flakes on his counter, and that looks just as weird as seeing Sprite cans in front of a bunch of writers on 30 Rock, one because the absence of a recognizable brand is bizarre, the other because it’s so obvious that it’s product placement. It made perfect sense for Dwight to temp at Staples, for Don Draper to wax eloquent on Kodak cameras, for Lorelai Gilmore to express shock when Christopher bought a Volvo; all of these times I was fully following the story, with no thought about companies buying airtime and the deals that were exchanged. If it makes sense for a character to have a Mac, then no one will wonder how much money it cost for Apple to have the computer in the scene.

Interstitials, extras—things like webisodes, blog posts, and other interactive elements that make up the rest of a television show’s official site—have also become a battleground. Actors often aren’t paid extra for them, which of course causes problems. It can also cause confusion deciphering the actor from the character. Most NBC shows have a “Chime In” promo that airs right before the cold open; this is to prompt viewers to stick around for the show and to generate excitement. For The Office promo, Jenna Fischer taps the microphone three times, mimics the “ba ba ba” of the NBC jingle in a fun, flirty way, and John Krasinski, who is standing beside her adoringly, responds, “Boy, you’re cute.” How sweet. Except they are identified by their real names—“Chime in with John & Jenna” appears onscreen—not as Jim and Pam, who would actually do an exchange like this. John and Jenna aren’t dating; it is their characters who are in love with each other, not the actors themselves. It’s not cute, or endearing; this forced element (no matter how natural it appears onscreen) takes the audience out of the show. If they shill for NBC, they should do it as themselves; if it’s a funny bit in-character, then they should be identified as being in character. Of course, it’s Joss Whedon (interviewed in this article on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog), who sums it up: “We invest in the reality of the show! And this is one of the ways they’re picking apart the idea of the narrative, keeping you from knowing if it’s a show or not…. They want to take the story apart so they can stuff it with as much revenue as they can. And ultimately what you get is a zombie, a stuffed thing—a non-show.”

Exactly. I understand a network and a show has to make money. And webisodes and blogs and podcasts can be fun—as long as they don’t mess with the core product.

So what about the Responsibility Project?

Liberty Mutual runs ads every week in the New York Times magazine, framing "The Ethicist" column, posing a scenario and offering several ways of solving it, asking which is “the responsible point of view”. Liberty Mutual’s campaign is the Responsibility Project, a series of films that pose thorny situations and the choices the characters face. Liberty Mutual also struck a deal with NBC as part of the Responsibility Project to offer television that offered “responsible viewpoints” and to help develop scripts that featured this mindset.

Liberty Mutual is an insurance company, and they, like Dove, are marketing themselves based on a feel-good principle. Having television that explored ethical viewpoints could be interesting, if the show doesn’t get preachy and bogged down by company objectives. But what exactly is the responsible point of view? Isn’t the point to explore the options, that sometimes what one person thinks is right is completely wrong and immoral for another? Mandating a mindset doesn’t work; the Family Friendly Programming Forum tried to make family-friendly programs, working on the pilot of several shows, most notably Gilmore Girls. Most shows that are labeled family-friendly tend to be anything but—The Secret Life of the American Teenager, 7th Heaven—even Gilmore Girls, especially as the show continued, made a mockery out of marriage and fidelity, two important values when discussing family. Too many people are leery of corporations watching and controlling our every move; even when they try to do good (and many do), it’s hard to shake the notion of ulterior motives (money money money).

Pretty much everyone interviewed for the New York article is a 30 Rock fan. I am not. I’ve seen maybe about half a dozen episodes, a few from this season and last. I do not find the show funny, though I concede I haven’t seen many of the “best” episodes, as I’ve understood them to be. According to Nussbaum, “What makes the show funny, and timely, and terrifying, is that on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon always loses.”

Which is exactly my problem.

Liz Lemon (a terrible, self-defeating name…which is probably the purpose) is supposed to be the Neurotic Single Woman. She’s supposed to follow in that long line of 30ish single women who worry about their singleness—Mary Tyler Moore, Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw. She babbles, she’s awkward, she’s often the sanest one amidst the crazies. Not only does Liz never win, even the smallest battles, but she’s constantly made a fool; no one at her job respects her. They walk all over her, but she has to corral her castmates together to make sure they can function, while she can barely function herself. Tina Fey has said that Liz Lemon is her single alter-ego, that if she didn’t meet and marry her husband she would be just as pathetic as Liz Lemon. For what bugs me most of all is that Liz Lemon is pathetic. She is fake-perky, always trying to hide those tears of shame and embarrassment by starting another ill-advised endeavor, failing at that, and then doing something shameful to get over her feelings. She never has any pride. She doesn’t stand up for herself. She’s not funny, she’s sad.

I welcome a real discussion on 30 Rock, why people think it’s funny, why Liz Lemon is the complete opposite of how I characterized her. As I’ve said, I haven’t seen enough episodes (nor have the notes), to write a real review of her character, why I don’t find her as appealing as she should be. I enjoyed her immensely on Saturday Night Live, but I find her strikingly unfunny—and sometimes insulting—on 30 Rock.


petpluto said...

Oh my god, you quoted Joss Whedon!!!! He is the awesomest of the awesome!

I'm going to give a more in-depth analysis of this tomorrow when I'm awake.

web said...

Check out for superb advertising deals and to advertise your website through national press. This is a great opportunity for all those who are on restricted budgets and yet want national exposure since web windows has been offering over 50% off ad rate cards.

John said...

I, too, was pleasantly surprised by the Whedon quote.

So Liz Lemon = Charlie Brown?

Tying in 30 Rock to SNL:
The product placement argument reminded me of the scene in Wayne's World where Rob Lowe is explaining why the show will have to feature product placement. Wayne and Garth rail against the idea, all the while sporting incredibly obvious product placements of their own and even spouting commercial taglines like, "Yes, and it's the choice of a new generation." Garth, dressed head-to-toe in Reebok brand clothing, says, "It's like people only do things because they get paid, and that's just really sad."

also: Mary Tyler Moore's character was named Mary Richards. Sorry, but the actress-character-character thing bothered me a little.