Friday, March 21, 2008


This morning, thousands of young men in the Philippines celebrated Good Friday by flagellating the flesh off their backs and being crucified. Government representatives, who quietly promote the practice through the Ministry of Tourism, didn't quibble over the health implications, advising the crucifees to get Tetanus shots first and to use clean whips and nails.

In San Fernando City, where 23 people, including two women, signed up to be nailed to crosses, the ceremony is officially sponsored by Coca-Cola and a local mobile phone network.

Think of that as savvy product placement.

And get used to it. Because in the ever hungry-for-cash television landscape, there will soon be more integration of entertainment and marketing.

While those of us with a religious bent or sense of taste might find this particular mix of spiritual suffering and lifestyle enhancement unsettling, these Good Friday traditions are a big draw in their part of the world. So thousands will gather to watch the gruesome festivities and maybe buy a Coke or a mobile phone subscription to boot.

And let's be honest! It's not like Coke is the first organization to realize you can make a buck off religion.

But there's always been an uncomfortable relationship between movies or television programming or music and advertising. And for decades, we all managed to keep our distance from one another.

Time was when big screen movie stars would sneak off to Japan to make some extra coin doing commercials while refusing to append their name or likeness to any product over here. As an example of how much times have changed -- this morning, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony's month old twins began selling PEOPLE magazines in a deal that netted their folks (or their trust fund) Six million dollars.

Major rock stars in the 60's, 70's and 80's refused to cozy up to the corporate shills anxious to turn their hits into product jingles. Nowadays, even the loudest voices in support of social change (like U2) release their work to brand product almost from the moment it begins to drift down the charts.

We can probably all share the blame for this state of affairs. I know I hounded my Mom into buying "Sugar Pops" because Kit Carson and the Cisco Kid ate them. And I'm sure I've bought something somewhere mostly because I connected a fond personal memory with the hit song that now underscored that product's commercial.

So I'm fairly certain the kind of endless product integration that's currently ubiquitous on "American Idol", "The Apprentice" and virtually every design and makeover show will soon be as much a part of your favorite comedies and dramas as guest stars.

And that's really a natural progression. On "Top Cops', we had a stable of Ford Crown Victorias that we painted and repainted to fit each week's police jurisdiction because that's the car most of those police departments drove. By the second season of the series, Ford was one of our sponsors and now and then ferried a vehicle down the road from the Oakville plant to be on camera.

Back then, that was called "Contra" and helped both the advertiser and the series a little. Likewise, whenever we did an episode that involved a traffic fatality or car chase, I'd let the network know and the Ford spots would be shifted somewhere else for that week so we didn't show anybody in a bad light.

The same went for Budweiser whenever we depicted a character who'd been drinking or American Airlines if the episode touched on a hijacking or involved the bomb squad. Not once did any of our sponsors dictate program content and we never argued if they decided their corporate image was better served by being somewhere else during a particular segment.

That's beginning to change as Multinational corporations have gained power and influence and media companies have been merged or gobbled up by the same companies that used to buy their ad time.

Those realities and the advent of the PVR, which allows audiences to skip commercials, means some new formula has to be found to pay for programming and the current wisdom suggests making the product a part of the show is the way to go.

Common practice in Canadian reality shows, for example, is that no brand name is seen or mentioned unless a cash payment has been made that is shared by the producer and the network.

So far, it's a business model that seems to make everybody happy. This season, Pond's Moisturizer appeared in a key dramatic moment of USA Network's "The Starter Wife" and saw the lagging product's sales surge by 400% overnight. Indeed, in 2006, American networks earned $1.5 Billion from product integration.

But that's now creating dilemmas for a lot of the people who make those shows. Because while advertising has always been a cross that many television artists have felt they had to bear. It now appears to be one to which we'll be nailed.

You might be a writer with an environmental conscience, for example, who's now faced with only getting your show off the ground if your hero drives a Hummer.

You may be an actress and a strict vegetarian. Of course, you're only playing a character who says "Hey, let's all go to Burger King". But if you've been vocal about your beliefs, you know that clip is going to turn up on YouTube, exposing you to a certain amount of personal ridicule.

You could well be a producer who has lost a member of your family to lung cancer and is vehemently opposed to encouraging kids to smoke. And even though it's illegal to advertise cigarettes, every tobacco company is eagerly waiting with a government mandated "educational" fund that'll write you a six figure check if the teenage hottie on your show can be seen lighting up while bemoaning her addiction and struggling to quit.

Under the current system, all of those content decisions are in the hands of the network funding the program and are not made by a show's creative contingent.

The WGA wrestled with these issues in their last contract without gaining much ground and SAG will do the same in their upcoming negotiations. So far, both unions' requests for artistic controls on what gets promoted through their creative output have been ignored. And when you see Guild proposals which seek a percentage of the money earned from product integration, you wonder if that approach even addresses the real problem.

What today's sponsored Crucifixions in the Philippines exemplify, however, is an element I don't think either artists or advertisers are considering. And that's how the audience will view the links made between product and entertainment.

For example, I became a fan of open wheel racing in 1986 with the arrival of the first Molson Indy in Toronto. A year later, we worked the race and a couple of the drivers into an episode of "Adderly". Locally, the event was advertised as great family fare and an exciting opportunity for corporations to link their products to a clean and wholesome brand.

Imagine my surprise a few years later, when attending the same circuit's race in Surfer's Paradise in Australia, to see no mention of bringing the kids, but a lot for the promised week long debauch of drinking and nudity.

In Toronto, the fans might be treated to a few taut tank tops. In Surfer's, the course snaked around endless condo towers featuring naked women and drunken public orgies.

It's kind of interesting that the same corporations who branded those race cars didn't mutter a word of complaint when the circuit decided to drop the Toronto race from this year's calendar in favor of keeping the Australian leg of the tour.

But thanks to the internet, we're past the days when a product could be sold one way in one market and a completely different way in another.

And as product integration on internationally marketed shows becomes more ubiquitous, I think the audience's relationship with both the shows and the products themselves is going to be similarly influenced.

I'm already certain that while Coca-Cola may sell a few more bottles to thirsty crucifixion fans in the Philippines today, there are some North American congregations deciding to opt for lemonade at the next Church social.

Audiences have a very personal relationship with their shows and their favorite characters. I know I used to find Chuck Norris harmlessly entertaining until I recently saw him pushing his political views. From here on, I'll reconsider renting one of his DVDs on a slow night when I just want to see something blow up.

Some people might be tickled that Eva Longoria bought an Oldsmobile on "Desperate Housewives" and now does promotions for the company. But somewhere in Ohio or Florida, there's a woman whose child was killed by a drunk behind the wheel of an Oldsmobile who has stopped watching the show altogether.

What happens to Diet Pepsi if this week's allegations that one of their prime spokesmen, Sean Combs, was behind the murder of Tupac Shakur prove to be true?

How will the fans of "House" react if their hero one day recommends Pfizer's new depression drug? And what happens to that series and everyone connected to its creative decisions if a fatal side effect to that drug is later discovered -- and to make matters worse -- a victim's family claims Dr. House's word was what convinced the deceased to change his prescription?

In that moment, all the easy money that came from product integration might not seem like such a gift and we'll be yearning for the days when everything on TV was manufactured by the "Acme Novelty Company".

In the end, you gotta suspect that on this day in particular, Jesus might be looking down on the recreation of his suffering, noticing all those people with a Coke in their hands and wondering how we missed the real message.

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

It's a strange World. Death by torture can be shown but the human body is so horrific that it has to be censored. The victims of crucifixion were stripped. They did not wear loin cloths.

I wonder if the film makers realise how incongruous those well tailored, pressed, starched and bleached loin cloths are.

Censoring the nude woman is offensive and makes the picture more titillating, not less. It is nearly as offensive as the exploitation of nudity implicit in the photograph and which the censorship does nothing to reduce.