movies TV


If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.

  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.  
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.