Saturday, February 1, 2014

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.

When we discuss revising the past, it's usually in connection to repressive regimes, political cover-ups, or nightmare pseudo-utopian science fiction like Orwell's novel 1984 or Gondry's film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now, we see the prospect of rewriting history to make money. Is digitally changing a brand of beer or sandwich shop in an old sitcom a big deal? If so, for whom? Do we need to question this as a slippery slope? Are there limits as to what we should accept as fair game for digital alteration? What are the costs and benefits of this practice and where could it lead?

Any class dealing with advertising in popular media could use this clip to launch some useful inquiry. I could also see English classes address the issue in connection with memory and storytelling, historical realism and such. Theory classes in media studies could make connections to postmodern theories with the slippery sense of the real and of time. Discussion in history classes would be most interesting. If our culture is shaped in part by popular media, and we look to media archives to understand our past... Yipes! I'd love to hear what readers and students have to say about this new service--please share in the comments below!

A fun project in response to the clip: remix old video to include contemporary product placement ads, or place products in iconic still images from history and popular culture. I'd love to see the different effects such retro-product placement would have. Remixers could go for any range of purposes from seamless integration to absurd juxtaposition to disturbing cultural commentary. If you send us good examples, we'll post them here!

WARNING: The final green screen prop is shaped like a large penis, which Colbert pretends not to recognize as he fondles it and puts it to his mouth as if it were a delicious product that might be digitally substituted in the future. It's hilarious, but may be too much for some classroom settings. The clip can be cut at 3:30 after Colbert says "Viewers won't even notice...they'll just slip it in..."

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