TV Uncategorized

Reality TV recaps

Against all odds, I’ve fallen in love with a reality TV show. Despite its rapacious land ethic, Discovery’s Gold Rush keeps me coming back for its loveable, hapless stars. However, Gold Rush makes me worry about American attention spans. The show treats its audience like chronic amnesiacs.

Before every commercial break, Gold Rush flashes a quick-cut edit of the next segment’s most dramatic scene. A bulldozer slides sideways down a dirt pile. A massive piece of gold-sifting machinery goes haywire. Crew members come to blows with the camera crew. Often, the tease exaggerates the moment’s importance in an attempt to keep the audience from switching channels.

Then, once the show returns from commercial, we get another quick-cut synopsis: one to two minutes summarizing everything that’s happened in the show to that point. And I do mean everything. These recaps cover not just that particular episode, not just the current season, but the entire series run. After nearly every break, the announcer repeats, “Up in the Klondike, two competing teams struggle to make a life out of gold mining.” It’s as if the producers think that Gold Rush’s rudimentary plot somehow got displaced in our pea brains by the Roto Rooter jingle or a glamour shot of Hardee’s latest greaseburger.

Of course, viewers haven’t forgotten what show they’re watching. The showmakers have other reasons for adopting this preview-commercial-recap model:

  • First, it stretches the tape, limiting the amount of new material needed for each episode. In a typical TV hour, commercials consume eighteen minutes’ time. That leaves forty-two minutes for actual program content. But by sandwiching each ad interruption with two minutes of repeated video, the show fills an additional twelve minutes (or more). That leaves less than half an hour for genuinely fresh content. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you stretch a few months of humdrum industrial work into an action-packed reality TV season.

  • A second reason for the constant recaps? It helps grow the audience. Not every viewer plops down at the top of the hour, then remains glued to your network for the episode’s duration. Many join the program mid-broadcast. By constantly rehashing the story thus far, producers help channel-flippers and late arrivers to tune in without feeling lost. They’re fishing for the inattentive and the restless; frequent recaps serve as bait. If the constant reminders also offend the faithful fan, that’s a downside far outweighed by the opportunity to nab new viewers.

So we know why shows constantly recap themselves. What are the consequences? Does reality TV bear responsibility for the American public’s dwindling attention span? When our media constantly rehashes the plotline, do we get lazy? Do we start depending on such recaps? Do we give up bothering to track the plot ourselves? Does it get harder to consume media that doesn’t spoon-feed us? Will novels start printing a plot synopsis at the start of each chapter?

marketing Uncategorized

Retroactive ads.

As commercial breaks become less and less effective (thanks to TiVo), embedded advertising will take over.

Films and television are overrun by this covert advertising. In fact, almost any logo or brand mention on modern shows has almost certainly been purchased by a multinational conglomerate and placed according to a strict marketing contract.

What’s the problem?

On the one hand, we might celebrate these developments. The two minute commercial break is hardly beloved by the TV-viewing public, and preroll ads at the movie theater are almost universally despised. Moving to an embedded advertising model eliminates the interruptions and lets the medium tell its story unhindered.

Rebuffed by consumer technology, advertisers have invaded previous sacrosanct areas. Without ‘commercials’ in the traditional sense, we’ve lost the border between artistic content and purchased advertising. The consumer can no longer be sure a plot point or visual represents the creator’s intention, a corporation’s insertion, or some amalgam. Such marketing is scarily subliminal, often passing underneath a viewer’s radar altogether.

Not only have advertisers invaded our present, they’re surreptitiously hijacked our past, as well. Reruns now included retroactively-inserted ads, purchased long after the original content creators surrendered creative control. Your favorite Friends episode inserts a box of Oreos next to Chandler, that lovable doofus. Don’t you want to be lovable like Chandler? Such marketing capitalizes on our sense of nostalgia, embedding corporate brands into our collective memory.


Where will such digital rewrites end?

What if broadcasters catered its in-broadcast product placement to appeal to you, specifically? Google and Facebook know what you click on the web–what if Jerry Seinfeld’s shelf showed Golden Grahams for my wife and Cracklin’ Oat Bran for me?

Where would we draw the line? If a viewer preferred brunettes to blondes, why not make the change on-the-fly, to keep them glued to the program? Why not prolong the relevance of a sitcom by retroactively updating the hairstyles, cell phones, or computers of the characters?

stepping back

Of course, these are television programs. These are sham worlds, inventions of the ad-driven media conglomerates. They aren’t classics or sacred art; How I Met Your Mother isn’t Casablanca. And if your memories are so media-saturated that altering TV shows upsets you, you may need to build some real relationships and make some worthwhile memories.

But these may not be safe, either. What happens when advertisers purchase rights to alter our more personal images? What if Nabisco could add a box of Oreos to photos from your summer vacation? Lest you scoff, consider this:

Changing pictures on Facebook to include product placement will create false memories. We will have memories of things we never did with brands we never did. Our past actions are the best predictor of our future decisions, so now all of a sudden, our future decisions are in the hands of people who want to make money off of us. That makes me very, very scared. I can see this happening and I can see it happening very soon.

—Aza Raskin, keynote speech, University of Michigan School of Information. Via readwriteweb.

Get ready for Nostalgia(tm), brought to you by Starbucks.

technology Uncategorized

A kink in the fire hose: Twitter search and ‘top tweets’

Twitter is real-time. It’s news on-the-ground, right now–before the cable 24–7s, online news outlets, or bloggers run with the story. By searching Twitter for a topic, you gain instant access to primary sources–raw data–before it’s digested and regurgitated by main stream media. No filters. No spindoctors.

Last week, however, introduced a subtle change to search. Queries no longer return the ‘fire hose’–i.e., every tweet that matches your search string. Instead, by default, only ‘top’ results show up. As Twitter explains here, top tweets are “popular Tweets that have caught the attention of other Twitter users.” In other words, Twitter’s search algorithm surfaces only the content that is already generating conversation.

No big deal, right? Isn’t this good for users? In some ways, it is. Twitter explains, “We think that showing the Tweets that other users have retweeted, shared, and interacted with can help you find new and helpful information more easily.” Popular content is popular for a reason. And those who want the fire hose can still enable it with just a few extra clicks.

But the ‘top tweets’ feature undermines one of Twitter’s greatest strengths: disintermediated public access to primary sources. Making ‘top’ the default view re-intermediates the content. Once again, news belongs to the elites–this time, the Twitterati. It’s a de-democratization of Twitter, muting the masses and amplifying the celebrated few.

If this change really does undermine Twitter’s core competency, why make it at all? Why default to top tweets? Here’s a (cynical) hypothesis: it might be about money.

Twitter must eventually capitalize on its cultural cache. But the company’s monetization efforts have been marked by bungled roll-outs and miniscule returns. Consider February’s Quick Bar fiasco. Twitter’s official iPhone app slapped a panel of trending topics on top of users’ timelines. The ‘feature’ could not be disabled, and many ‘trends’ were sponsored, thinly veiled advertisements. The Twittersphere erupted, condemning the obtrusive “Dick Bar.” Complaints continued unabated until Twitter finally backed down.

Whatever prompted the ‘top tweets’ change, it’s far less brazen than the despised Dick Bar. In fact, this subtlety may be strategic. Rebuffed by the earlier blunder, perhaps Twitter is tip-toeing into ad integration this time around. Will the ‘top tweets’ feature (like the Dick Bar before it) eventually integrate more ‘sponsored results’? How else might ‘top tweets’ pave the way for a more ad-friendly Twitter?

internet Uncategorized

Embracing the Cheese

This commercial is so full of win, I can hardly stand it. Let’s talk about why.

Locally-produced commercials are infamously cheesy. Low-quality video sources, inadequate audio equipment, tasteless subtitles, and tragically unhip jingles mark the genre. Unfortunately, it takes cash to do a whiz-bang, slick ad–and cash is exactly what a small local business lacks. So… what to do? Claw and scratch your way out of mediocrity? Blow the budget on some marketing firm? Stick with old fashioned word of mouth?

Cullman Liquidation has a better idea: don’t hate the cheese; embrace it. This north-central Alabaman business doesn’t hide its low budget or amateur star power. And yet the ad works.

For example, the commercial’s cornball sound effects fit, somehow. The whip-crack tightens up the hard cut to the business’ dilapidated billboard. The cougar roar ensures that we don’t take the seductive, smoking salesgirl too seriously. The eagle scream? Well… it’s just bad-ass.

The antagonistic tone is spot on, too. Robert Lee doesn’t give a damn about getting your business. He doesn’t care whether you like his commercial or not. He and his crew even Braveheart-charge the camera near the ad’s end, as if to say, “Either buy a trailer, get out, or prepare to be liquidated, Cullman-style.”

Then there’s the closing shot, the odd mix of unrelated elements so common in local ads. We get both the American and the Alabaman flags (in case we forget where Cullman Liquidation is located?). We see the Cullman sign again, though it’s been oddly cropped into an off-angled sign shape–gloriously amateurish. And the screaming eagle makes an appearance–not as a sound effect but as a poorly-positioned piece of clip art, complete with unsightly transparency artifacts (click the image to zoom in). This shot is so bad, it’s good. It’s almost as if someone wanted to dump as many local ad clichés on the screen as he could.

And, for all the ad’s corniness and simplicity, there are other signs that this is well-crafted work. Desaturating the video and washing it in sepia fits the mock-serious tone. Creative angles and juicy close-ups mark the shots. Slow-mo and hard cuts are carefully selected and effectively used.

So what’s the deal? Is someone at Cullman Liquidation a closet filmmaker? Are they connoisseurs of the local ad genre? Not quite. Did you notice that two of Lee’s workmen seem somewhat out of place? The hipsters standing in the back row don’t work for Cullman. They’re internet entertainers (“Intertainers,” to use their term), who specialize in producing stereotypically cheesy (but self-consciously hip) commercials for real local businesses.

Does knowing this make the Cullman Liquidation spot less awesome? Yeah, a little. But I have to admit: I wish I could do what these “intertainers” do for a living.

marketing Uncategorized

Urinal logos: flushing your brand down the drain

Conventional wisdom says that you want to get your brand out there, no matter what. Sloan Valves, manufacturer of my school’s waterless urinals, has apparently taken that to heart.


The drain canister on a Sloan waterless urinal. Photo credit: TSOMPITM.

Any press is good press, right? After all, by printing their company name here, Sloan enjoys near-constant exposure to potential clients. People will stare at their brand for 10–20 seconds, non-stop, multiple times per day. That’s a blessed eternity in the marketing world. And these customers-to-be wouldn’t dare look away, or they risk a mortifyingly public stain. Guaranteed brand exposure for Sloan!

But did anyone at the company stop to think this through? Yes, your potential clients know your company’s name… but at what cost? Might the eyeballs advantage be offset by the fact that people are literally peeing all over your brand? Every time I empty my bladder, I fortify unfortunate subconscious associations. Through sheer repetition, I’ve established a Pavlovian response: when I see the Sloan logo, I’m hit with this overwhelming urge to give it a golden shower.

In addition, consider the unpleasant sense experiences to which Sloan binds itself:

That sickly unmistakable, ammonial stench.


“Yeah, let’s sink our brand right into that mess! Great idea, Jenkins! Photo credit: What grinds my gears.

Another disagreeable association: like any plumbing fixture, Sloan’s waterless urinals get backed up. When they do, a pool of pure, undiluted urine collects in the bowl. Eventually, it “mellows” and develops that golden-brown hue that marks well-ripened waste. Sloan sinks its logo right into the middle of that unhappy puddle.

One last unsavory connotation: the urinal session is one marked by territoriality and self-consciousness for many men. We space ourselves out carefully at the urinal wall, determined not to unwittingly ‘show our hand’ to our fellow evacuees. We concentrate on maintaining a stolid poker face–one that says, “Ha. I’m completely comfortable with whipping out my equipment here.” With all that anxiety floating through our heads, is this really the time you want to burn your brand into our brains? You risk tying your product to every experience of male inadequacy.

In the end, though, Sloan took that risk. And who can blame them? When your business is building toilet parts, maybe you want customers to associate you with human waste. Along these lines, look out for Sloan’s newest campaign slogan: “Sloan Valves. Making shit happen since 1906.”