This all started when I went to see “The Avengers” a few days ago (yes, I was late to the party). Staring back at me in the climactic Third Act moment when the Hulk is wrecking N.Y. (and no, at this point it’s not a spoiler) were these words on what was supposed to be a big city storefront but looked about as phony as Donald Trump’s hair:
“We Are Insurance. We Are Farmers”
Now at first I chalked it up to “well, that’s the way it is in our commercial world” and that there could perhaps be that insurance store, or even ad slogan on another building right there as the Hulk was wreaking havoc in Manhattan. But when the phrase got it’s big lingering close-up a second time I realized I was now in the world of specific payment positioning and suddenly it wasn’t about the Hulk at all but the mammoth strength and power of a corporate interest whose product its producers hoped I might at one point have actually bought. I use the past tense here because though it’s been 25 years plus with Farmers for me, the company’s blatant obnoxiousness in interrupting a movie I wasn’t particularly loving, created the opposite effect. It caused me to begin to consider if I even wanted to continue with them. Perhaps I could instead switch to that adorable Gecko called Geico. Or maybe phone or text Flo, the cool Progressive Insurance Lady. Not only are they both snide and funny like me, but I’ll bet they’d also have enough taste to not insert themselves in the middle of the third act of a mindless action film I didn’t want to see in the first place but somehow found myself pressured into vaguely enjoying. That’s a strategy I’d like to at least reward with, well – something.
Of course, it didn’t stop there. The next morning I’m pumping gas, still considering cancelling with Farmers, and happen to see Ted is coming. (That’s a movie billboard, not a vagrant named Ted). Then I look down on the ground next to the gas pump and see a very large, very red “Seattle’s Best Coffee Inside” poster right under my feet — like it’s reading my mind, knowing I’m thinking about advertising. And yes, since I knew you wouldn’t believe me – I took this picture.
That afternoon I subsequently talk with a student and see a Disney character is on her T-Shirt. I turn on the radio in my car on the way home and it’s selling me an all-natural bug repellant. And once home, on my beloved cable TV channel, they’re assuming I have erectile dysfunction or bladder leakage and need either powerful herbal supplements or a sleek, comfortable adult diaper that is called something else but let’s face it, they are diapers. Plus, to make matters worse, I can’t even figure out if I’d rather be impotent or incontinent. Pick your poison (or mine). My gambling Dad actually would put these odds at “pick ‘em’ – which means the outcome could go either way, though in this case both choices are equally heinous.
Certainly ads have been around a long time. Advertising Age lists the first newspaper ad in 1704, though it is eminently possible the Coliseum in Rome had one or two emperors seeking lion sponsors. But if Mitt Romney is right and “corporations are people, my friend” then in today’s world we all have many, many more friends than even the ones on our Facebook page, and many of them even more faux than in our virtual existence.
Speaking of friends and advertising, did you know you can see, in syndication reruns, many of the NBC “Friends” eating Oreos they never ate at the time their episode originally aired simply because Nabisco or some other parent company inserted the box and/or cookies into their filmic hands in 2012? And that this is not limited to “Friends” and NBC but includes pretty much all of your fave characters in any episode of any other show you choose to watch? I mean, what if they’re more a part of the Mallomars/Ding Dong kind of crowd? Or at the very least, people who crave Lorna Doones? The possibilities are endless for any advertiser who has the time and money to buy them the snack of their choice.
This was news to me but has been going on since 1999 when a new technology called L–V.I.S. (pronounced Elvis – as in, well, you know who) was launched. Yes, a computer program named for the King of Rock and Roll that does all this and more, begging the question: did they have to get approval from the REAL Elvis, or the Elvis Presley estate, to name themselves this? Whatever the answer is, you at least have to give this company credit for being so out there with who it is that it’s very name comes from a show business legend many years after he even existed, especially without his full endorsement of them in the first place.
But this technology does allow David Schwimmer (Ross Geller) to eat Oreos at a table on a random syndicated episode of “Friends” when he never specifically did so in the original scene, nor, for all we know, did his creators ever intend him do so (certainly not at that moment). It can also magically display a new ad for a 2011 movie, like say “Bad Teacher,” in a “How I Met Your Mother” episode originally shot 5 years earlier in 2006 for the show’s second season. (And no, the HIMYM plot in that episode didn’t have a time travel theme).
To be clear, a widely used computer program literally drops the ad of a corporation’s choice into any rerun TV episode or feature film past and present whether its creators want it to or not. And speaking for writers and producers and directors and actors who take their storytelling personally, let’s put it another way – you’re the parent of a six-year old (as many artists consider their offspring) and the school or day care center you’ve entrusted their care to is allowed to force feed them Oreos or Snickers or perhaps even have them use a series of really bad diapers or insect repellents not only without your consent but even without your knowledge.
As sports fans know, this is not only limited to film. There is a practice where a computer program can continually and magically create stadium billboards of its choice at any number of live baseball games you watch on TV that friends (the real ones) who might actually be at the game don’t see because those billboard ads don’t actually exist in their real live world. No — those ads are only reserved for those of us who choose not to or can’t afford to or attend the game live but instead find ourselves watching it on the TV or tablet of our choice. So rather than paying for a real stadium billboard ad that goes to just thousands, a company can computer generate a virtual ad that will, in turn, reach many millions – even when all the time the millions watching are assuming they’re viewing exactly what they’d be seeing if they were live at the game.
For some of us, none of this is real news. Studios now have whole departments for this purpose with names like “product integration” as opposed to what it used to be called when I worked in movie marketing – product placement. Consider the clever corporate wordsmith—ness of the new term, which, if nothing else, proves we all have no chance to survive unscathed. Placement, you see, implies a sort of fake insertion meant to look real yet is still inauthentic and usually implies undesirable. Whereas the word integration harkens back to “equality” – a time in the sixties when we as a society decided to come down on the side of “fairness” and make civil rights for all the priority. Well – what’s more preferable to you – choiceless fake insertion or being in/on the right side of history in fairness and equality? As a corporate American company trying to tempt you into buying my product, I’ll always fly the patriotic flag of freedom and choose product integration so at least I can appear to be fair. Especially where involuntary insertion (nee placement) is the other option, right? Because as far as insertion goes, it is commonly accepted that a human being should always at least be asked.
These ad/marketing tricks. No wonder “Mad Men” is so popular. Matt Weiner must spend months every season creating a subliminal popularity formula within every 12 (or is it 13?) episodes.
Now don’t get me wrong — overall there’s nothing wrong with using real life products creatively. Ask any screenwriter in particular and he or she will tell you that most of us do that. Humphrey Bogart had to watch as not just any gin but a specific bottle of Gordon’s Dry Gin was thrown off the boat in 1951’s “The African Queen,” while Joan Crawford got to take some belts from a real bottle of Jack Daniels (at least that’s the label on the outside, though one can surmise otherwise) when she appeared in “Mildred Pierce” six years prior. Not to mention the Reese’s Pieces famously consumed in “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” because M & M’s, the original candy of choice, famously turned down Steven Spielberg’s original offer of insertion. (Uh, Epic fail, as the kids say, Mars, Inc,). And even the then-hipper-than-hip AOL (uh, yes they were in the pre-Internet age) theme became the chief corporate tie-in of the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy “You’ve Got Mail.”
Yes – we indeed do live in a label-ridden world and to not include characters eating, drinking, watching or listening to something recognizable is to deny them real world existence. Even I knew this in the late eighties when, as a young writer, I was foolish enough to use the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” in a script to thematically evoke both character and time period, never realizing that one of the cardinal rules for spec script writing is to NEVER use a Beatles or Stones song (which are preemptively expensive to license) and expect it to be used if your movie actually gets made.
Actually, I did sort of know the rule but used it anyway because, well, it sounded perfect and was absolutely right and what were the chances we’d ever face the licensing hurdle in real life? I mean, who would ever dream I’d actually win the writing lottery that one time and the damned thing would really and truly get bought and filmed in my lifetime?
It was back then that I quickly learned, as Hollywood corporations now know, that there are indeed thousands of choices for actual products, songs and contemporary references that can be inserted (ahem, integrated), changed or used to make the same exact point. Sometimes even better than the ones you intended.
Well, at least that’s what my producers told me. Though when I think about it – I still believe only that one particular Stones song would have perfect. In fact, to this day I wonder if that was the reason why my movie was not the award-winning coming of age drama I intended, I’m sure of it.
Okay, not really. But maybe a little. Partly.
When I’m not dwelling in the past, though, here’s what I really and truly think. On a recent trip to The Hulk’s Manhattan, walking down Times Square and its billboards and licensed rights, I can see myself as I look around. And soon, very soon, I find myself longing for the 1970’s porn palaces of my youth that I now find far, far less offensive than anything in New York bearing the word Trump (or some other reasonable facsimile). Feeling this way, then I wonder – have we made progress or should progress be called by some other name? Then I wonder even further – what would Elvis, not L–V.I.S., have to say?
And then I finally ask myself one last question — Am I the only one who even cares?