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Zen and the Art of Advertising

Last night, TeenLitGirl and I opened up the fifth season disc set of Mad Men while entertaining fantasies of actually being caught up in time for the premiere of the seventh season in April. Yes, this is the type of thing you find yourself fantasizing about when you reach your middle age years with a mortgage, car payments, and three children from previous marriages. Long-gone are the dreams of becoming the starting third baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies or writing one of the first great American science fiction novels of the 21st century. Oh, you certainly harbor dreams of a more fantastical nature -- and if you're lucky, like me, you have someone in your life who will gladly help you entertain them -- but you have learned to measure your happiness and, to a much lesser extent, your progress by goalposts that are grounded in a reality formed by a forthright examination and acceptance of your true abilities and limitations.

Maudlin philosophizing aside (I'm sure I'd probably like the sound of the previous paragraph much better after having consumed a drink or two), before we even started on the season premiere I found myself contemplating the advertising packaged with the discs. Mind you, we've all been dealing with such advertising since videotape rental copies started placing trailers and other ads in front of the "feature presentation." I always loved that particular turn of phrase; it implies that the other items placed on the media are all just as worthy of our time and consideration -- even though quite frankly, most of us couldn't give a shit about them and would happily fast forward right by all of them. The advertisers must have loved it when they learned that you could program disc players and create discs in such a manner as to make bypassing the ads more difficult than just pressing the "Skip" button. But, I digress.

What really caught my attention was the fact that the people responsible for the packaging of this particular season of Mad Men took the advertising to a new level. One of the paper inserts was a piece of co-branded marketing for Canadian Club whiskey, complete with two mixed drink recipes on the back.* To give the marketing material the highest degree of visibility, it was actually in front of the first disc. You might still place it aside without a second glance, but there was no way to actually not see it. However, since it was possible to see the insert but not give it any time or consideration, the packagers also included in the disc's opening ads what could most generously be described as a nearly 2½-minute infomercial for Canadian Club.

To be fair, there's no hiding what's going on here. Shortly after he takes the screen, Bobby "G" Gleason, our pitch-man Master Mixologist, states Canadian Club's "appreciation of [its] partnership with the Mad Men: Season Five DVD," but not before mentioning that Mad Men "brings back an era of American history in which drinks were drinks and men were men." Amazingly, that's said without a hint of irony or humor. I could deconstruct everything that's wrong with the statement, but anyone who has watched and properly absorbed the first four seasons of the show knows exactly what's wrong with that statement. However, I give Bobby "G" credit for doubling-down on this canard and introducing the Old Fashioned cocktail as "a man's drink!" The lack of self-awareness and unintentional awkwardness displayed during the spot is only magnified by the "drink smart" disclaimer at the end of the ad. If there's anything that the alcohol industry doesn't want, it's a public that's "drinking smart." In fact, it's like the warning on the side of a cigarette package -- they don't really want you to see it, but they do want to cover their asses so they aren't held liable for using their product as directed.

After a couple more minutes of ads, we finally get to our feature presentation. Although, I did notice that it wasn't called that anymore -- when did DVDs/Blu-Rays stop including that bit of verbiage? I guess the advertisers felt that such wording was inadvertently devaluing the material placed before the "feature." Over the past couple decades, we've witnessed the shortening of the actual program, the expansion of commercial breaks, increased numbers of the product placements, and a mastering of the art of making product insertions appear much more natural while simultaneously maintaining high visibility for the brand name. With this "partnership" we've finally reached a point that would have left Don Draper stupefied in awe, particularly whilst sober: the advertising itself is now on-par with the programming. We are now only one small step away to returning to the day when The Three Stooges took part in an entire comedy skit built around cartons of Camel cigarettes (fast forward to the 14:00 minute mark for the whole skit -- the Stooges don't appear until around the 19:30 mark).

Okay, maybe we won't see a return to such blatant sponsorship of television shows. However, there's no denying that the age when the program mattered most is over. I see no greater proof in that statement than the fact I just wrote two full paragraphs about the ad without saying a word about the first episode of Mad Men's fifth season. Yes, we tell ourselves what we really value is the programming, but what we value more are $9.99 season box sets, and the only way to get them is to let the advertisers run amok.

Damn, now I need a drink after contemplating all this. A perfect circle has been created. At least I'll ascertain sooner than later just how much better that first paragraph sounds under the influence of a drink or two.

* Proving that any good ad man takes advantage of every opportunity, both recipes include the brand name of another alcoholic product distilled by the makers of Canadian Club.


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Jan. 13th, 2014 10:18 pm (UTC)
It's often obvious to me when a tv show or movie is doing paid product placement. "Oh, look, the two main characters are driving Toyotas this season," or "Gee, everyone in this town has an Audi." My reaction to the advertiser is generally not positive. It's not necessarily negative-- just not positive. I wonder what market research says about the effectiveness of product placement.
Feb. 18th, 2014 03:42 pm (UTC)
I'm the same as you. It's always plainly obvious to me as well, but I feel like there are times when the people involved somehow make the placement less conspicuous (slightly more intelligent about the placement?) than others. At least it's never as bad as the way some television shows in the early '50s were compromised by their sponsors.
Feb. 19th, 2014 12:25 am (UTC)
Curious what you mean by compromised TV of the 1950s. The only example I can think of-- having seen a retrospective on it-- was Arthur Godfrey's variety show where he openly hawked products from sponsors such as Chesterfield Cigarettes.
Feb. 23rd, 2014 01:39 pm (UTC)
There were a large number of shows in which the primary sponsor was a constant presence. I linked to an episode of the Ed Wynn show in my original post, and the Milton Berle show was famously sponsored by Texaco. I am aware that for a number of years, of every episode of Lassie ending with Timmy having a bowl of Campbell soup in the kitchen. I don't know how much each of the show's sponsors influenced the final product, but this list of officially-sponsored television programs is quite extensive.
Feb. 23rd, 2014 08:44 pm (UTC)
Sure, there were a number of shows up through the 70s that were officially sponsored by some company. Their name would be on the title of the show, or the announcer would introduce them, or the host would acknowledge them, etc. That form of sponsorship is all fine with me because it's clear about what it is and it's minimally intrusive on the content. Timmy gushing over a bowl of Campbell's in a Lassie episode is different because it's product placement that changes the content and tries to masquerade as content. BTW I watched at least a dozen episodes in reruns as a child and never saw that.
Jan. 26th, 2014 03:46 pm (UTC)
Found you on 25+ comm, added ya :)
Feb. 18th, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I've added you back as well.
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