More than 20 years ago, David Foster Wallace lamented that television had co-opted irony, using the medium to flatter viewers into believing they were smarter than the rest of the naïve public -- all the while lulling them into consuming more and more of the products advertised on television, just like everyone else. While irony perhaps has gotten an unduly bad rap, Wallace was absolutely right to worry about the manner in which the entertainment-industrial complex has been doling out winks to the viewer. Today the very tools that appear to dilute the power of advertising only reinforce its authority — an issue that’s especially troubling, given the fuzzy line protecting independent content in the digital age.
In her new book, "The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age," writer and documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor laments that artists colluding with brands has stopped being seen as a form of selling out. This has become particularly true as anxieties over diminishing revenue are prompting increasing numbers of creative types to embrace product integration techniques.
“Across all types of media,” Taylor writes, “product placement is on a massive upsurge, growing at a rate of 30 percent per year despite the recession.”
In some instances, product placement is both obvious and expected. In the case of Hollywood blockbusters, the revenue can offset some of the massive production costs, even before tickets go on sale. Take the most recent Superman movie, "The Man of Steel," which reportedly secured $160 million to run promotions for 100 different companies. Unwilling to leave all the bounty to big-screen adaptations of DC superheroes, Marvel has also gotten cozy with corporations. A review for the recently released "Amazing Spiderman 2" aptly begins: “Be prepared to see a lot of Sony products alongside the webslinger. Sony phones. Sony laptops. Sony televisions. If Sony makes it, it's bound to be in the movie.”
In other cases, advertisers try to fly under the radar with “stealth marketing.” A standout example from Taylor's analysis concerns the plight of Matt Wolf, a filmmaker who thought he could accept a sponsorship from Absolut Vodka without compromising anything of moral significance in his work. However, as the “Absolut Collaboration” project grew closer to completion, he learned that portraits he had taken for the project of “people he knew and admired” ended up transformed into branded content that the subjects had never consented to promoting. Wolf got burned by "surreptitious" commodification, and his friends became collateral damage.
Ultimately, stealth operations such as this can be performed in lots of ways. There’s sponsored journalism, brand-inspired content, the corporate underwriting of blogs, and subsidized reviews. The subtle yet pernicious influence of "branding" in our cultural products grows more pervasive by the day.
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Amid this perversion of content, satire might appear to be a much-needed antidote. It holds out the promise of calling attention to the problem and through subversive jiu-jitsu getting market forces to turn against themselves.
Take the season (and in all likelihood series) finale of "Community." Over the course of a characteristically madcap and labyrinthine two-part story arc, "Community" repeatedly put sandwich chain Subway, and its ubiquitous branding, at the center of all the action -- normally a marketer's wet dream. In the process, though, the show depicted Subway as the epitome of ruthless corporate behavior. Another TV show that recently attempted to pull off that same trick was HBO's "Silicon Valley," which, in its third episode, made extensive use of Burger King to caricature the eccentric personalities at powerful technology companies.
Both episodes were fun to watch and had a critical bent. At a superficial glance, they seem to prove that content creators can embrace product integration without sacrificing creative vision. But if we look closer, we find the same postmodern problem repeating that drew lots of attention back in 1992. Then, in the movie "Wayne’s World," comedian Mike Myers acted out a scene in which he shamelessly plugged for Pizza Hut, Doritos and Reebok. The cognitive dissonance is certainly funny, but it's also instructive to think about what's really happening with the viewers. The main takeaway is not likely to be that such relentless promotions are absurd. Rather, because the audience members are addressed as sophisticated, knowing insiders, we’re primed to lower our guard and see ourselves as too savvy to be manipulated. Which of course makes it that much easier.
Would Pizza Hut or Reebok have agreed to take part if they were really concerned about the criticism? For that matter, would Subway and Burger King? These companies all weigh the pros and cons each and every time they put themselves out there. As good a case as any could be made that appearing in a negative, even outrageous, light actually shows that these companies have a good, self-deprecating sense of humor.
We're living at a moment when entertainment analysis has expanded beyond the water cooler and printed pages of official critics’ reviews. So we shouldn’t lose sight of what happens when the conversation becomes digitally democratized. Conversation occurs on social media, in blogs, in the moment, all the time. And because satirical episodes are especially provocative, the advertisers who sponsor them essentially initiate a process designed to evoke a relentless churn of commentary.
Through live-tweeting and post-show reflections, viewers become writers who take pleasure in discussing how their favorite shows represented various brands. They also become readers who enjoy taking in all the writing about their shows highlighting recognizable products and services. Meta-commentary fuels repetition. So new mentions proliferate. And so even more branding occurs.
Being in on the joke is great, but it doesn't negate that last fact. As much as "Silicon Valley" likes to mock the mores of corporate America, the fact remains that its Burger King bit ends with hungry characters eagerly scarfing down their food.
Evan Selinger is associate professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He's also affiliated with the university's Center for Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC). You can follow him on Twitter @EvanSelinger.