Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ads You Can't Skip: Sitcom Weaves Plot Around Seamless Product Integration

Even if you zip through the commercials with your DVR or block ads on your web browser, Fox’s hit sitcom New Girl shows us that there’s a good chance your favorite characters themselves are trying to sell you stuff within the programs and content you love.

Maybe you’ve accepted or gotten used to product placement as necessary to help fund your entertainment—maybe even retro-product placement won’t seem so weird in a few years (see our discussion of the Colbert Report’s treatment on this previous post). But product integration is a level beyond, where characters and shows actually deliver the product pitch as a “seamless” part of the plot. The opening clip from the New Girl episode that immediately followed the Superbowl kept the focus on the ads with Ford Focus focused jokes. Focus Jokus, Hokus Pokus…roll clip! [after the jump]

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Classing up the Winter Olympics with Onion Satire

With all the TV coverage focused on national identities and the satirical news taking shots at the whiteness of competitors while sending up the anti-homosexual policies of host-nation Russia amidst all of the usual gay stereotypes associated with the winter games (see any Colbert Report or Daily Show over the past few weeks), it's easy to overlook the socio-economic issues involved in the Olympic dream. Bring class back into your class discussion of media representation and reality with this poignant headline and short article from the masters of satire at the Onion (click link to see article):

Winter Olympics Inspire Nation’s Youth To Try Sports Their Parents Can’t Afford

Who can afford to go for the gold?
Just before this article cracked me up, I watched NBC do a short piece tallying the cost of Bode Miller's skiing equipment, which they estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's not like the money issue is subtle in Olympic coverage--with all the sponsors, the talk about the costs of bobsleds, etc. However, seldom do we see the equipment costs connected with the opportunities for people to compete or enjoy participating in the featured sports (and even more rare is any connection made between such class issues and nationality, or race, or gender). So, here's an easy way to start the conversation through a bit of satire about media construction of heroes, and unreachable desires--and the Onion's framing within parent-child tensions around money makes this an accessible piece for middle school through college age students in social studies, English, or media studies settings.

Ask a Slave: Historical Re-enactment Survivor Makes Ignorance Look Stupid

In Philadelphia public schools, where I used to teach, African American History is not relegated to Black History Month, but is a required course for graduation alongside World History and U.S. History. Inevitably, teachers must respond to questions about the need for such a course, usually from a non-African American student or parent. Well, Azie Mira Dungey has created a perfect response in her comedy web series, Ask a Slave. The short videos feature ignorant and insensitive questions from tourists to Lizzie Mae, George and Martha Washington's slave whom Dungey played as a historical actor at Mount Vernon. The videos are embellished re-enactments of real interactions Dungey had with tourists addressing her in character as a historical figure--that's a cool enough whirlwind of representation and reality to fuel a full class period's discussion in itself! But the real jumping off point for using this series in teaching and learning is at the intersections of race, gender and history.

The comedy comes in part from the facepalm-inducing outrageousness of the actual questions addressed to Dungey (as Lizzie Mae), and develops in the answers and looks she gives the camera to highlight the tourists' ignorance.  So, the videos call out ignorance about history, but what else do they do? What do they say about our dominant historical narratives about our "founding fathers"? Is it even possible to respectfully address and ask questions of a slave? What knowledge, empathy and sensitivity would remedy the ignorance in the tourists' questions? What media messages and experiences could deliver such knowledge? The videos are ripe for media literacy analysis through the lens of race and gender representation, and they all suggest a need for historical knowledge that your learners could seek and create media to communicate. However, many other discussions need to happen around these videos, as well. For educators, is it harmful to the spirit of inquiry in your learning environment to show videos that shame people for asking questions? Can the portrayal of (mostly) White ignorance do more than instigate paralyzing White guilt and shame, and reactionary righteousness or dissmissiveness? Should we even consider humor as a part of educating about something as difficult, complex, and shameful as the historical institution of slavery? These are great questions for teacher education as well as media studies and social studies classes of high school or college students. But as with any good inquiry about race and representation, it won't be easy.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Step Right Up and Teach Ad Appeals with Tom Waits

The pitchman cometh! Given the Superbowl blowout last night, most viewers likely paid more attention to the ads than the game. Here's an amusing old song from Tom Waits' Small Change album (1976), "Step Right Up," which I recommend as a fun way to introduce a session on advertising techniques.

Using the lyrics, try grouping the various types of ad pitches in categories and them giving names to the techniques or types of appeals. Compare what you come up with to a classic list of ad techniques, like this or this. Challenge students to find or create commercials to exemplify the pitch techniques in Waits song.
The ultimate challenge: Make a mash-up of bits from commercials with a soundtrack lined up with the song. If you have a big enough group, with a few savvy video editors in it, the work could get done reasonably quickly to great effect--everyone will know and recognize those techniques! [So what?] Here's why that could be a good thing...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Big Game That Shall Not Be Named (For Fear of Trademark Infringement Litigation)

Trademark law in the U.S. is copyright's badass older brother who doesn't want to hear you whining about fair use or parody--he doesn't care if you're kidding or adding value--because he said shut up because he came first and because he said so. This Colbert Report segment highlights the absurd power of intimidation that trademark law gives to big companies along with all the rights reserved to control the names of the culture we buy into. Wait, you mean we risk getting sued out of existence for mentioning the name of the most watched annual media event in the world?!? Viacom thinks so...
Stephen Colbert's coverage of "Superb Owl" satirizes trademark litigation.

U.S. trademark law is a tricky thing, and different from copyright. The distinction is something important for all of us who say or post anything online or make anything for a public audience--because ignorance of the law is not a defense! So, try using the Colbert clip above as a springboard to some research to find out when you can and can't say...

Blog Recommends Opinion Essay Satire for Learning about Opinion Essays

Why do we share opinions on the Internet? Why use an opinion essay form? What does the style in terms of opening or closing down dialogue? Are we speaking to the choir, or reinforcing like minds among readers? Engaging opposing views or convincing the uninitiated? Or just venting? What elements of an opinion essay are effective for whom?

Continuing the meta-humor theme from Brooker's, "How to Report the News," from our previous post, today here's a bit from the opening of Edward Sharp-Paul's satire, "An Opinion Piece on a Controversial Topic":

No doubt you will have noticed that Issue has been in the news lately, due to the scandalous behaviour of Public Figure, and the controversial comments of Publicity-Hungry Commentator. The editor of this site and I were discussing the Issue just the other day, and we agreed that making a glib reference to that discussion at the start of this piece would add a sense of authority to my authorial voice, as well as suggesting that the site upon which this piece is being published shares my opinionated stance on this Issue. 

I was inspired to write this piece by Currently Fashionable Polemicist, who summarised the Issue better than I could when they said “oversimplification that makes me feel smart”. I have a strong opinion on this Issue, and my sharing it with you at this time is in no way attributable to opportunism on my part, due to the Issue’s sudden prominence in the news cycle.
Sharp's essay makes a perfect introduction to news-related opinion or argumentative essays for English or other writing classes (advanced high school/ introductory college).

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Blog Recommends Satire of TV News Segment for Learning about TV News Segments

Why is it funny to reveal the conventions of storytelling and reporting in local TV news in a local news style? Is TV news format absurd? Ridiculous? Inane? Or, does the humor come from seeing something so familiar stripped down to the bare bones of its rules and internal logic without the narrative and connection to reality? This clip from Charlie Brooker's brilliant 2010 BBC4 Newswipe series, a show designed to reveal the inner workings of television news, presents us with a fun way to learn the typical techniques used in local TV news segment.

The obvious application here is to support learning conventions and techniques in TV news. Simply taking notes from the video would make a nice introduction to local news format. That could be a springboard to analyzing the techniques of other news broadcasts to compare to Brooker's satire.

Control the Past and You Control the Future... with Product Placement!

Most TV, youtube and movie viewers understand the practice of product placement where sponsors pay for their brands to be integrated with video content and media makers get money for guaranteeing that their audience will see the ads--an important avenue to revenue in the age of DVRs and fast forward buttons. But what if networks and production houses could make money off ads in reruns? Well, a new ad company is selling just that service: digital revision to place products in syndicated reruns and old movies. Is this creepy? Or, a great opportunity? If your class can stomach an "abstract" sexually graphic visual (or, if you can stomach cutting the final side-splitting 30 seconds), this clip from the Colbert Report makes a great discussion starter.
Stephen Colbert facilitates future marketing by using ad-ready green screen surfaces.

Colbert's plans to include more ad-ready green screen surfaces into his sets and props as a way to facilitate future product placement in reruns of his show are the funniest part of the clip, but they also raise important questions about how new content being produced today might be affected by the prospect of future digital alteration.