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]

(the product integration part starts at about 2min; for full episode, search for New Girl Season 3 Episode 14).

This isn’t just a character getting a sandwich at a sponsor’s shop or drinking a particular brand of cola. This is a guy expressing his love for his car and reciting its merits as his friends make fun of him for going on and on about it. While the clip makes a great piece for introducing the concept of product integration to a media studies or advertising class, and for discussing the challenges of product integration in a TV production class, the clip and entire episode revolves around the deeper issue of taste cultures—an important topic often skipped in media literacy learning. The banter about the product intends to be believable for both the characters and the plot. A great discussion question to start off: What makes the product integration seamless; why is it believable? (Or, how is trying to be believable?) Answers will explore both what is believable for the plot and characters, and what is believable about such a discussion in real life (IRL)—and that’s where things get more interesting. This is where the conversation about the clip turns to how products confer status, represent lifestyles and values, and how friendships involve our tastes in cars, music, and everything else.

The friends in the car are on their way to crash an L.A. party at the pop star Prince’s house where their model friend had been invited and brought the central character, Jess, as her plus one. The character Schmidt in the car is excited to meet some celebrities and millionaires, and half-jokes about ditching his ordinary friends for a life among the stars. The Ford Focus focus (sorry, I’ll try to stop doing that) in the opening scene is itself a joke as the guys had wanted to pull up in a limo in order to appear famous. The Ford Focus, as the characters discuss, is an affordable car while being awesome enough (with shiny lights and such in addition to the veritable ode to its gas mileage) to inspire its owner to talk incessantly about it. Wisely, the show only makes the ad pitches and visual sweep of the interior of the car briefly, and makes jokes about the endless talk preceding the scene that viewers do not have to actually endure onscreen.

As an advertising and storytelling technique, it’s interesting to discuss: What are the implications for storytelling here? What do writers need to consider about the characters, the plot, and the audience to make the product integration work? A challenging assignment could ask students to rewrite a scene from a favorite show (or an assigned one) or movie to include a seamless pitch for a product. And, once turned on to product integration (or placement), students love to find examples in the media they use, and judge whether it works.

Of course, when our students start suddenly seeing how shows are trying to manipulate them, we run into the common, legitimate complaint that exercising their media literacy to recognize the product placement ruins the enjoyment of the show. That topic is worth talking about, too. How does the ad impact the comedy? Do we laugh less when we notice the show is selling stuff? Do you have to ignore your critical side to enjoy the funny? I've found that the more practiced you are in seeing the way media are constructed, the easier it is to engage at multiple levels simultaneously--to immerse in the what the show is going for (its preferred meanings) while noting the ways it gets its effects for appreciation or critique.

For getting deeper into connections between personal tastes, cultural identities and commodities, some important questions to raise are: What lifestyles and values are represented in the scene? How do products signify identities? A great way to make the topic more tangible is to have learners create concept maps of the connotations of certain products (a modified road race car versus a Prius, for example) from different identity positions (rebellious teen, cautious parent, etc.), and then add the institutions or social groups that “normalize” the different identity positions.
Actually, this whole episode of New Girl makes a pretty good vehicle for studying these ideas, as the celebrity Prince solves the romantic issues between the lead characters who go on to perform a song with him—from the new album he’s selling, of course!

This isn’t the first time New Girl has integrated Ford products into its plots. Last season, the clumsy Jess stands in for CeCe as a show floor model for the unveiling of the new Ford car in L.A. She makes a slapstick mess of the event, but she delivers the ad, nonetheless. Comparing how the product integration works differently in the two scenes would make an interesting media literacy project for fans of the show.

I remember the first time I noticed product integration of this sort. A few years ago, in an episode of Numb3rs, a show about a math whiz from a family of cops who helps his brother solve crimes with math, the main character figures out the pattern of a serial killer’s crimes using a mathematical model from the revolutionary new design of a vacuum cleaner; and the first commercial was for a new Dyson vacuum with said design. My head exploded. What the…? Product integration is getting better and better, it seems, at hiding its seams, or using them to get inside ours. How are you and yours keeping your media literacy up with the pace?

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