A few weeks ago, I watched an abridged version of our city's Santa Claus Parade on television with my kids. After the Mother Goose opening act, things went downhill. The on-air banter between hosts was basically this: "Ted, look at that totally awesome Sony PlayStation float! Do your kids love Sony PlayStation?"
"They sure do, Roberta! They love both PlayStation 2 and the even better PlayStation 3!"
"I love parades! And Sony!"
Float after float appeared, elaborate polyurethane-foam fun designed to sell stuff to my five- and six-year-old. When the gushing commentators broke for ads, the corporate guns moved in to finish the sell job with a lengthy infomercial for a new Disney film.
I turned the TV off and then spent an hour defending myself against an expertly executed two-man whine offensive: "Princess movieeeeee! PlayStation!! Tim Hortons!!!"
The parade broadcast may be an example of what the industry calls "branded entertainment," but I call it "passing" - ads trying to pass for fun. This kind of passing isn't of the nice, liberated-transsexual-finding-her-identity kind, but the old-fashioned mixed-race-person-with-no-rights kind. It's the kind of passing that leaves a plume of misery and rage in its wake. It's a lot like deceit.
In Canada, ads directed at kids must be pre-approved by an Advertising Standards Council committee that complies with the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children (except in sensible Quebec, where all advertising aimed at those under 13 is banned). But judging from the parade, there's a grey area. In the less-regulated U.S. last month, toy company Hasbro and Discovery Communications, Inc. joined forces to launch a cable channel called The Hub, featuring shows based around Hasbro products like Strawberry Shortcake and Clue. My kids would have full-body seizures of consumer desire if they were exposed to a half-hour of Strawberry Shortcake in some contrived scenario involving a whipped-cream monster. Little children don't navigate marketing with finesse; they don't yet know their intelligence has been manipulated, then insulted. But passing - and especially product placement - treats adults like kids, as if we, too, are too dumb to distinguish art from commerce.
The acclaimed TV series 30 Rock tries to circumvent the inherent condescension of passing with meta-humour. In one episode, Tina Fey's Liz Lemon launches a tirade against "product integration" as "compromising the integrity of the show," then interrupts herself with a declaration of love for Diet Snapple. It's a funny, insider nod to advertising sneakiness: Six seasons into 30 Rock, the show has shilled for Cisco, McFlurry and Verizon. But no matter how ironic, the joke is repetitive and distracting. Product placement breaks the story.
As advertisers get more desperate, we get more insulted. A Toronto company called Fresh Baked Branded Entertainment created an online sitcom called Life Unjarred about a befuddled dad who accidentally becomes a spokesman for VH Sauces. The show passes, keeping apace with the most mediocre TV out there, until the part where Dad puts on an apron and delivers a Thai chili sauce chicken recipe. Is this really the radical innovation VH Sauce's parent company, ConAgra, thinks it is? Advertising has always tried to pass, and starving entertainers have always let them. In 1896, at the dawn of film, the Lumiere Brothers joined forces with U.K. soap manufacturer Lever Brothers to shoot a piece of film featuring two women washing laundry in a yard in Geneva. Not so casually displayed nearby were two cases of Lever soap, one reading: "Sunlight Savon."
Sometimes product placement lends verisimilitude, revealing a character's depths through what he consumes. In the movie version of The Road, Viggo Mortensen finds a Coke in a post-apocalyptic world, a product brimming with American meaning (and fizzy taste! Can I get my money now?). But when he discovers a Vitamin Water - I don't remember that from the original Cormac McCarthy novel - the movie turns billboard.
Oddly, the panic fueling passing may be overstated. A Boston College study found that viewers who fast-forward through shows actually pay more attention to the centre of the screen than those who view at regular speed; ads are still seen, even when zapped. Similarly, a Neilsen study reported that almost half of DVR users between 18 and 49 choose to watch ads rather than blast them away.
I wonder if my kids will ever know good advertising, the intelligence of a simple campaign. Perhaps this loss is part of the nostalgic appeal of Mad Mena show about the process and artistry of an industry so changed as to be unrecognizable - a show that is, yes, rife with product placement. The best advertising declares itself what it really is: advertising. It has no need to pass.