Product Placement: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore

A week or so ago I took a look at the fake Infomercial creative concept (as did others), which seems a little played out at this point. A similar concept I’ve seen a lot of is the “isn’t funny how we’re – wink, wink – acknowledging that we’re doing a product placement and by doing so we’re actually cool and not really selling out, but actually we are, but at least we admit – nudge, nudge – that we don’t like doing it, but don’t dislike it enough to actually not do it.”

Brandchannel speaks of the technique here, using NBC’s 30 Rock as the example. And yes, I like the show, but they do this a lot. It’s reached the point where it really isn’t that funny, it’s just lazy.

When Mike Myers did this in Wayne’s World 2 it was a real commentary on the Hollywood machine:

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But that was in 1993!  I’m all for tweaking marketers, but it’s time to come up with a new schtick.

Product Displacement – Part of a DINU

Gladys Santiago has a great Tumblr blog called Product Displacement that’s worth a look. In it she delves into the murky world of fake brands that hold enviable product placement spots in such shows as Pushing Daisies, My Name Is Earl and Chuck. As you would imagine, Rob Walker is all over this type of stuff. PSFK also picked up on Gladys (via Rob). At first glance, these fake brand product placements are, if noticed, good for a chuckle. But Gladys is certainly taking deconstructing of this phenomenon to near academic levels.

First, here’s her quick definition of Product Displacement:

Product displacement typically occurs when a studio or broadcaster want to avoid giving a product/brand free publicity. Displacement is also used when companies refuse to allow their brands and logos from being shown, especially in scenes and story-lines that portray their products in a negative way.

She goes on to describe to types of Product Displacement: Fictionalized and Unbranded. Go read this post for more on these distinctions. I think they are some additional nuances and subtleties to explore as well. 

Product Displacement

Product Displacement

Gladys uses the example of the Slanket (a Snuggie-like blanket cum poncho) from 30 Rock. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I think the writers of that show are so clever, they’re working on several levels including meta.  Here’s what Gladys has on this:

Liz Lemon is using an Apple laptop when Tracy Jordan enters her office to ask for advice about his wife. Liz is startled by Tracy barging in and while referring to her “Slanket” robe, defensively says, “It’s not product placement, I just like it!” This is a clever response to accusations that McDonald’s paid to be heavily featured in an episode of 30 Rock, which Tina Fey denied. NBC via:

Show of hands – how many of you thought the Slanket was a fake product, just a spoof on the mega-popular Snuggie? I did.  Using the Snuggie would have been to easy. 30 Rock decided to spoof the spoof on product placement.So, let’s break this down:

  1. Regular product placement (apple computer)
  2. Unexpected product placement (slanket)
  3. Acknowledgement that product placement exists
  4. Denial of (unexpected) product placement

The last one is the truly genius part. Remember in Wayne’s World 2 when Mike Myers ‘pulled back the curtain’ on product placement:

Looking at that now, it seems so dated compared to 30 Rock. Spoofing real product placement? That’s for the squares. The cool kids now mock esoteric, bordering on unknown product placement. We desperately need Grant McCracken to sort this out for us.

Gladys continues with an interesting theory:

It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize “Tit Tat” and “Coffee Bucks” as stand-ins for real brands, but that recognition allows audiences to engage with product placements in a manner that is significantly more encompassing than simply spotting a branded product onscreen.  Referencing these product displacements to their real world counterparts requires audiences to actively draw upon their cultural capital and awareness, therefore they have more resonance than a strategically placed can of Coca-Cola or character mindlessly raving about his/her T-Mobile phone.  Ultimately, product displacements have the opportunity to flatter the intelligence of viewers, especially if they are parodic and satirical in nature.

Paging Dr. Jenkins, Dr. Jenkins to the O.R. please, stat.

Buzzin Hornets = Benson & Hedges

Buzzin Hornets = Benson & Hedges

So, now brands are going to deliberately use fake brands that are similar enough to the real brand so that consumers will make the connection? Crazy, right? Well, no, not exactly. In fact, if you are a fan of Formula One motor racing you’ve been familiar with what is known as alibi branding for years. For a long time, tobacco companies were heavy sponsors of F1. However, in some markets, France for example, not tobacco advertising was allowed. What to do with your very expensive sponsorship? Well, if you were Benson & Hedges cigarettes, you did this:

Same font style, same placement on the car. All the teams did something like this. 

I also like to look at this from another perspective, that of brands creating a Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe (DINU). When shows do this sort of thing, they are creating a richer, more complex universe for their fans. The examples are myriad and range from the Pear laptop they use on Nickelodeon’s iCarly to the fictional airline from Lost. That’s why the Slanket gag on 30 Rock is so much better than the sledgehammer delivered wink-wink, nudge-nudge of Wayne’s World 2. 30 Rock played the gag on two levels, tweaking product placement but also expanding their DINU in a way that simply referring to the Snuggie never would have.

Where does this all end? At what point does clever just become confusing?  I’ll give the final word to Gladys:

These product displacements are a far cry from the fictional worlds where “acme” branded products abound.  That said, they have a sort of quirky quality to them—they add verisimilitude and provide shows with an entertaining, parodic element.  Brand integrations are commonly seen as an effective way to reach elusive viewers in a DVR-filled world, but with product placements at an all-time high, (according to Nielsen Media Research, there were 204,919 product/brand occurrences during first half of 2008 alone) it would be naïve to think that audiences are not capable of tuning them out as easily as they fast-forward through commercials.