Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Being Run Over by Product Placement

Product placement has been around for years. For the most part, it’s in the background, and not too obnoxious. Lately, however, the placement can be insanely over-the-top.

That was the case with a recent “New Girl” episode - one of my favorite shows, partly because I adore Zooey Deschanel. I’ve liked her in movies (500 Days of Summer, Failure to Launch, Gigantic, heck, even Elf), as well as her partnership with Matt Ward in the music duo She & Him. She did a knock-out version of the Star Spangled Banner before Game 3 of this year’s World Series - if you missed it, here it is on You Tube: SIngs National Anthem. Not to mention she’s just incredibly cute. And yes, my wife understands this little obsession. Ask her about Johnny Depp sometime...

In the aforementioned episode, Jess (Zooey) agrees to fill in for her model friend who is too hung over to work a car show for Ford. Jess gets made up and is handed a pair of five-inch heels to prance around in. Of course, being the “earth-girl” type, she struggles with the height of the heels and uses the Ford Focus to help regain her balance several times. While she is hanging on - or falling on - the car, a Ford executive is issuing talking points about it. The dialog on the show during the scene sounds like it was pretty much scripted by the ad guys at Ford.

In the blog “Brands and Film”, written by someone named Erik Renko who is head of consumer analytics at Mercator, the biggest retail company in Slovenia (Slovenia?), we get the Ford side of the coin: “The whole sequence lasted around three minutes and the Ford guy presented several characteristics of 2013 Ford Fusion. The integration in New Girl showed us that Ford has a sense of humor. It looked like they let the writers of New Girl be creative. All in all: a great placement for Ford.” Wow, Ford let the writers be creative. How nice of them.

Closer to home, Michael Kamins, associate professor of marketing at USC’s Marshall School of Business, has this to say about egregious product placement: “I would bet (younger viewers) are not as cynical toward advertising. So maybe they're more accepting on the face of it because it's not an ad. . . . It's truly product placement, but it's a sneaky way of seducing the audience.”

Well, not that sneaky in this case. But he has a point about the audience. Here’s a quote from a “New Girl” viewer I found in the blogosphere: “That wasn't that bad for product placement, since it actually made sense given the situation.” Really? Are we that brain dead?

Yes, these deals help pay the bills for scripted television and seem to have become a necessary evil in an era when many viewers record shows on digital video recorders and then skip the commercials, or, if not recording shows, at least hitting the mute button during the commercials when watching live. But good product placement should be subtle and not hit the audience over the head with a hammer the way they did in “New Girl”. After being bludgeoned by Ford for three minutes, I was ready to say goodnight to Zooey and the rest of the cast for good.

I’ve got an idea. Instead of intruding on our entertainment sensibilities with dumb, boring and obnoxious product placement, why not make COMMERCIALS that people will watch? Or is that too hard? I’m a big Apple user, but if I were in the market for a smart phone today, I’d be considering a Samsung Galaxy S3 based solely on advertising. This is a great spot: 

OK, well, in spite of this little rant I’m still watching “New Girl”. And I’m also still muting MOST commercials. But if the medium is indeed the message, then we are plunging headlong down a very slippery slope with what seems like great abandon and enthusiasm. And that doesn’t bode well for the future of scripted shows. Maybe Ford needs its own reality show. Coming soon, Survivor: Ford, with nothing but product placement! A ratings hit? Or would we finally turn off the channel for good? I’m guessing ratings hit...

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Stuff That Fills Up Our Lives

I was at Kaiser recently for a check-up, reading a Sunset magazine while I waited to see a doctor. I got caught up in a story about a family in Marin who run a “zero waste” household.  No trash. Almost no recycling either, since, as the wife and mother of the family, Béa Johnson, pointed out “So much recycling really goes to waste, so you need to try to reduce that too.”  Clothes are from the used shops, cleaning products are made at home. Minimal (VERY minimal) stuff in a zero waste house. What I want to know is, what about the wine bottles? Or the cheese doodle bags? And what about teenage kids who rebel at the thought of another thrift store visit for Senior year wardrobe choices?

On the opposite side of the scale - a few days later I read in the SF Chronicle (the actual printed newspaper which is still delivered every morning to my driveway, though no longer by some kid on a bike) that hundreds of hoarders and health care providers from around the world will attend the Bay Area's hoarding and cluttering conference, an annual event put on by the San Francisco Mental Health Association.

Hoarding, I read, is marked by an overwhelming desire to collect items and an inability to discard things that may seem useless, to such a point that the collections cause stress and start impacting a person's health, career or relationships. Roughly 2 percent to 6 percent of Americans have a hoarding disorder. LOTS of stuff kicking around these households.

As a designer, I think I fall sort of in the middle of these two extremes. If anything, I’m leaning a little bit more towards the hoarder side. But I’m a collector, NOT a hoarder (though my wife may beg to differ). For the last several years it’s been posters and baseball memorabilia. And maybe a little western stuff for good measure.

The baseball collecting is pretty easy to figure out. I’m a guy. It’s a sport. I’m just a little more obsessive about it than some. But what I find fascinating is the art of the poster. A poster’s main job is to sell something - a product, a brand, a service, an event. And great artists have been drawn to the medium for over a hundred years. I’ve owned poster art by Toulouse Lautrec and Cheret, 60’s posters from the Fillmore Ballroom by Wes Wilson, modern rock posters by Jason Munn, posters by David Lance Goines, posters selling all kinds of stuff, advertising all kinds of events. I don’t have room to put them all on the wall, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’m just drawn to them, because the best of them do two things exceedingly well: they work great on their own as art, and they work equally well as a promotional piece.

This collecting stuff certainly goes against the grain of a “zero waster”.  Regarding photos, art, keepsakes, Ms. Johnson has this outlook: Memories get stale when photos are displayed for too long. To keep the past fresh, albums come out yearly around the holidays. As for art, she hasn’t found anything she likes and can afford, although Béa sees the “living wall” in her living room (plants growing up the wall) as an ever-changing art piece. (I kind of see her wall as a pain in the ass to keep alive, but to each their own.)

However, I think the “less stuff is better” movement has a tough row to hoe. Here’s a lament from a zero-waste blogger in Utah about the difficulty of changing the American fascination with stuff:

“Though there are regional pockets where prevailing trends advocate and facilitate reduced consumption, the American Dream of a big house, a big car and lots of beautiful things is still culturally relevant across much of the country.”

I’m hoping that beautiful things are ALWAYS culturally relevant. And I would quote some hoarder blog for balance, but I don’t think there are any hoarder blogs - they can’t find their computers because of all the stuff stacked on top of them.

So what do we make of the stuff we purchase or don’t purchase? When did it become politically incorrect to desire stuff - even beautiful stuff? And are zero wasters as goofy as hoarders? I mean, if you really want zero waste, how about living in the woods naked and beating fish senseless with a rock for dinner?

Personally, I think owning things you love is good for the soul. I think stuff takes on meaning and emotion for the owner. And that stuff can be anything from a humongous flat screen TV you share with your buddies every Sunday in the Fall to a carved wooden animal you brought back from Oaxaca that always reminds you of the great lunch place you found. Do you need them? Maybe not literally, but they help give life a narrative and a common language to share with others.

So here’s to all of us finding our way. Some people make avoiding stuff a political statement and find their way simply. Some people hoard everything they’ve ever owned in their life. And then there’s most of us, who every once in awhile have to haul the detritus of our lives off to the dump. Which is also good for the soul.