In a disrupted industry, well-placed products pay artists. Audiences needn't suffer.
Art and brands peacefully coexist in 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.'
Amidst all the hand-wringing about disappearing newspapers, shrinking TV profits, and all the other media chaos caused by new technology, I think most people are overlooking the obvious solution: advertainment.
That's the term for product placement and other advertising that is woven into the fabric of a song, a TV show, a video game, a film, or any other sort of mass media entertainment, including magazines and newspapers. It makes digital thefts much less damaging. And with a little effort, it can make free content downright profitable.
Done well, advertainment delights the audience. Don't we look forward to seeing the car James Bond drives or the exquisite togs of the characters in TV's aptly named Suits?
I knew advertainment had been growing for the last 15 years, spurred by all the tech tricks for pirating content or getting around the ads, or both. But even I was surprised to learn of the extent to which product placement has invaded pop music.
The Pitch podcast recently did a thorough investigation of a 2012 example of in-song advertising that had country star Jason Aldean rewriting "Take a Little Ride" to name-check the beer of his new sponsor. The original version mentioned the beer of a competitor, but that was an artistic choice. (The song also refers to a truck by its brand name, but apparently that too was an artistic choice.)
Music was the first of the publishing industries to be "disrupted" by digital technology, which allowed consumers to buy that one hit single they wanted for 99 cents, without buying an entire mediocre album for about $15. And then there's the piracy.
So the music industry people that The Pitch's host Whitney Jones interviews are matter-of-fact about rewriting a song in order to sell the right beer. But Jones raises all the obvious questions. Are brands putting undue influence on musicians? Are songwriters corrupting their art?
"When I hear a brand name I'm constantly questioning whether it's really meant to be in the song or if it's just a matter of corporate influence," Jones says. "That's not how I want to be listening to music."
Fair enough. But it raised another question for me. When, exactly, did commercial art become some supposedly pure thing untainted by commerce? There's a reason it's called the entertainment industry.
Marketing to thieves and pirates
I first heard about the problem of commerce soiling art when I was about 10 years old and reading the Anne of Green Gables trilogy (published between 1908 and 1915). Poor Anne, now a university student, is mortified when her chum Diana rewrites her short story "Averil's Atonement" to include a reference to Rollings Reliable Baking Powder, because the company is running a contest. She wins the $25 prize, which includes publication of her story in several prominent Canadian newspapers, as well as a pamphlet that will be distributed to customers.
"I feel as if I were disgraced forever," Anne moaned, as was her wont. "What do you think a mother would feel like if she found child tattooed over with a baking powered advertisement? I feel just the same... And it is SACRILEGE to have it degraded to the level of a baking powder advertisement..."
There's more, but you get the idea: in Lucy Maud Montgomery's mind, commerce is dirty.
Although, I've long thought that the problem wasn't in the concept of advertainment, but the execution. Diana writes as badly as one of today's blogger-shills, but I think someone with a little talent for copywriting could have sold that baking powder story.
And therein lies the solution to mass media's problem of audiences using everything from ad blockers, to digital recorders, to theft in their bid to avoid advertising.
This week CBC reported that now there's a not-quite-illegal gizmo that you can attach to your TV to stream endless movies and TV shows for free. No Netflix subscription, no cable, and no commercials.
Sounds good. Right up until there's no entertainment because scriptwriters, actors, and directors have all gone to work somewhere that pays them.
But with advertainment woven right into the art, theft is no longer a problem. It might even be an advantage, since every thief just increases the marketer's reach.
When commercial art wins
The first time I saw advertainment done well was in the 1953 movie Gentleman Prefer Blondes, when Marilyn Monroe does that famous version of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." As the drums beat and whip Monroe into a frenzy, she shouts "Tiffany's! Cartier! Talk to me Harry Winston, tell me all about it!"
"Who's Harry Winston?" my 12-year-old self wondered aloud. (I also wondered what the heck Monroe was doing cosying up to men for money, but that's another discussion.)
After my mother, the movie junkie, explained that they were all famous jewellery stores, I wondered if this was advertising? No, this was entertainment, she said firmly. Advertising was that annoying stuff no one wants, which interrupts the entertainment.
Even then, I wasn't so sure she was right. And Audrey Hepburn nibbling a Danish in front of Tiffany's? That sure looked like an ad for the jewellery store to me. Come to think of it, that annoying song on the radio, in which some band whines about not getting their "pitcher" on the cover of the Rolling Stone, sounded like an ad too.
What struck me then (and now) was that advertising is only considered advertising when it is done badly. If it is invasive and interrupts the flow of the entertainment -- or takes up 17 minutes of an hour-long TV show -- everyone starts looking for ways to avoid it.
But if an ad is charming, we don't just tolerate it, we sing along. I'll go so far as to say that I like to get my product advertising in this form.
When one of those new-fangled smartphones helped Jack Bauer save the world from terrorists on 24 a decade ago, weren't we all intrigued by the idea of running our whole world from a phone? And I feel no shame in admitting that I hunt down the many blogs and articles devoted to what various TV and film characters are wearing and putting in their houses.
And if that helps provide salaries for fine actors and smart scriptwriters, I say bring on the Jimmy Choo shoes. (No one paid me to write that. Alas.)
But mostly I don't notice product placement that isn't aimed at me, as long as it makes sense within the context of the entertainment. Country singer warbles about beer and trucks? Must be Tuesday.
Brand names have always been a useful shorthand for sketching out a character or painting a picture. Products are sprinkled throughout Tin Pan Alley gems like 1927's "Puttin' on the Ritz," where Irving Berlin mentions Arrow shirt collars, as well as movie star Gary Cooper and the ultra-rich Rockefellers. In 1934, Cole Porter echoed Berlin's enthusiasm for Arrow shirts in "You're the Top." His long list of best things included a Berlin ballad, a Bendel bonnet, Mickey Mouse, the Ritz Hotel's hot toddy, Cellophane, the Louvre, Saks Fifth Avenue, and a lipstick called Drumstick.
Would anyone call those two clever tunesmiths anything less than artists? And I might add that they were very smart at the cross-promotion.
For most of the audience, the issue isn't advertising; it's bad advertising.
Your move, artists
Everyone in the 21st century understands the mass media game. Promotions in some form or other always pay the price for our amusements. And we're happy to let advertisers have their way with us in exchange for good entertainment -- but not at the expense of it.
So I'm not quite sure why there's any aversion at all to the sensible solution of advertainment. But I suspect there are some lingering notions from the 19th century bourgeoisie about how making art is a higher calling that exists in some rarified realm where no one thinks about money.
That's nonsense of course. We only get good craft and great art if someone pays for it. Contrary to popular opinion, creative work is still work. Even an artist as illustrious as Michelangelo was just doing his job.
In her thoughtful book, Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness, author Miya Tokumitsu points out that Michelangelo, artist-for-hire, was reluctant to take that Sistine Chapel gig we all rave about. He wrote a friend that it was no fun to be twisted into awkward positions with paint dripping on his face, for about four years.
"I've grown a goiter from this trap I'm in," Michelangelo complained. "This is my state: arched and indented like a Syrian bow. I am not in the right place -- I am not a painter."
Clearly, the poor man only painted that glorious ceiling -- with what amounts to a difficult client's company propaganda -- because it was his job. Does that make it any less glorious?
If anything it makes his accomplishment that much more impressive. He did a job he found distasteful like a professional and he did it with such genius that we've all been in awe for five centuries.
So there it is: I don't think the commercial incentive is any barrier to great art. In fact, I'd like to see what a skilled advertainment writer faced with the challenge of weaving promotions into a show like Game of Thrones might do to make those 14 million free downloads worth a few bucks. Preferably before their dragon budget runs out.