A Product Placement Guru speaks

Ready for the release of Morgan Spurlock’s Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold tomorrow, Norm Marshall gets a profile in the Los Angeles Times today. He’s the marketing man responsible for pushing as much product placement as possible into Hollywood movies. He makes his job seem straightforward:

Marshall’s biggest business is cars. He keeps a fleet of vehicles from General Motors, a longtime client, on a lot across the street from his office near Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport — they’re cars in working shape that have been deemed unfit for one reason or another for consumer sale. (He has a separate lot outside New York City.) Marshall’s pitch to the transportation managers on a set is simple:

“Someone will come to me and say they need a car for an action scene. I’ll say, ‘I have an Escalade you can blow up. It’ll be a lot cheaper than if you tried to do it with a car from Avis or Hertz.’ ” All he asks in return is that the car is shown prominently, and that the scene doesn’t impugn the car’s safety record.

It’s a scenario in which everybody — at least everybody involved in the transaction — wins. The car is given to the transportation manager, who’s happy he can check an item off his list at no cost. Marshall has satisfied GM and justified his retainer. GM, meanwhile, has gotten a free ad for little more than a car it wasn’t going to sell anyway.

While a seamless blend of selling and storytelling might be every manufacturer’s dream, audiences are still a bit wary of being sold stuff when they’re not officially aware they’re the target of a hard sell. Like it or not, however, advertising has always part-funded mass entertainment, and it looks like product placement is a viable way, at the very least, of keeping production costs down.

Product Placement Guru Explains How It’s Done – LA Times

TV Advertising “Not Dead”

As media forms shift and develop, there is always plenty of hand-wringing about the “death” of one or another, with pundits claiming that viewers, listeners and readers will migrate to whatever is most new and shiny. Well, guess what? Newspaper ads are still with us (although spending is down) in pretty much the same form as when they first appeared in the seventeenth century. Ever get a Penny Saver circular dropped in your mailbox? That type of ad-filled gazette is the direct heir to those early publications, and it still fulfills the same function, spreading information about goods and services on offer.

In its time, television was going to destroy both cinema and radio, but those media forms are still with us. The new kid on the block, the internet, has claimed plenty of our eyeball time, but, as this post in Advertising Age suggests, we still prefer to watch TV, even if that involves watching Snooki:

But most of all, TV is significant. It has such high esteem that our culture has come to conclude that if something is on TV, it must be pretty noteworthy. In fact, even though we have hundreds of channels to choose from now, TV isn’t nearly as democratic as the internet, where anyone with a modem and a computer can create their own website, post a video, blog or tweet.

On the other hand, very few people get to be on TV. To Americans, being on TV means that either: a) you’re someone important, or b) someone important thinks you should be on TV. Being on TV is something to strive for. It’s the reason that people dress up, make signs and act ridiculous just to be on TV for a few seconds with Al Roker.

While surfing the internet is an active experience (you have to choose where to click) TV allows you to lie back and relax, confident that someone, somewhere, has done the selection (the gatekeeping) for you. With Americans still watching an average of 5 hours TV per day, it seems we still have some way to go before we kick the TV habit. For now, it makes sense for advertisers to keep shelling out big money for those 30-second spots.

Snooki Proves TV is More Relevant Than Ever – Advertising Age

Sexism Begins At Home

According to research done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media, rigid gender stereotyping is particularly rife in the cartoons and other shows aimed at pre-schoolers.

Davis has played some iconic female characters in her time, (“as an actor I wanted to feel challenged and, you know, play baseball rather than be the girlfriend of the person who plays baseball”), and will always be remembered as Thelma in Thelma and Louise. However, she acknowledges that those kinds of roles are few and far between for women, and that this is part of a pattern of media representation that begins with G-Rated material aimed at very young children. Davis first encountered the issue when watching TV with her daughter, so she decided to investigate further.

We raised some money, and we ended up doing the largest research study ever done on G-rated movies and television shows made for kids 11 and under. And the results were stunning.

What we found was that in G-rated movies, for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female.

Of the female characters that existed, the majority are highly stereotyped and/or hypersexualized. To me, the most disturbing thing was that the female characters in G-rated movies wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as the female characters in R-rated movies.

And then we looked at aspirations and occupations and things like that. Pretty much the only aspiration for female characters was finding romance, whereas there are practically no male characters whose ultimate goal is finding romance. The No. 1 occupation was royalty. Nice gig, if you can get it. And we found that the majority of female characters in animated movies have a body type that can’t exist in real life. So, the question you can think of from all this is: What message are we sending to kids?

She hopes that, through raising awareness of the problem with the Writers’ and Directors’ Guild, a culture shift is on its way, and that by the time of the next study, due in 2015, “we will have seen the needle move”. Here’s hoping.

Life Imitates Art– Geena Davis in the Wall St. Journal

Do You Love Me Like You Used To?

In today’s New York Times, Manohla Dargis asks whether digital technology has changed our essential relationship with movies – which used to provide the ultimate in a mass communication experience. Fascinating.

Out There In The Dark, All Alone – New York Times

A Songwriter Speaks

Britney Spears Femme FataleBritney Spears’ seventh album, Femme Fatale, debuted at No. 1 on the charts this week. Viewed as more of a successor to the 2007 stomper, Blackout, that the rather insipid Circus, Femme Fatale has garnered some pretty good reviews. Britney and her people make cheesy pop records, for people to sing and dance along to, and utilize as part of their 2011 soundtrack when driving/partying/studying/jogging or whatever else they do to music. Britney has worked hard as a performer since her Mickey Mouse Club days, and absolutely nails the whole song-and-dance routine. She knows what her job is, and she’s good at it. She’s not pretending to be a great musical diva – unlike some of her peers, who have pretensions to the title “artiste” – and has never ever claimed to be a songwriter. So it comes as a surprise to see some reviewers sniping about the fact that Britney doesn’t “even” have any co-writing credits on Femme Fatale. Why should she?

Heather Bright, who did write one of the songs on the album, explains all in a recent blog post.

here’s my thing… and I feel VERY passionate about this issue. Britney could have come to me, like all these other A-list artists, and said…

“Hey, you wanna be on my album? I’m gonna need writing credit for that song AND part of your publishing even though I didn’t write anything! And then I’m gonna go on tour and gross $150 million in ticket sales and not give you any of that, even though I’m performing your song!”

I could rattle off a laundry list of artists who I’ve had that conversation with! And I’m on the other end like… “Oh okay… so you wanna rape me, but just with the tip?!” *Prince side eye* Britney’s one of the few artists I’ve worked with who didn’t try to take something that wasn’t hers. In my experience, from a business standpoint, her entire team is nothing less than a bonafide class act! If I ever have another song that she wants and another artist happens to want the same song… Britney will get it EVERYTIME! Why? Because she’s honest! And she treats her writers and producers with respect and dignity. An artist is nothing without a hit song… and a hit song is nothing without the right artist. It looks like the question I posed earlier just found its answer… maybe this is why 12 years later she’s STILL at the top!

Despite Heather setting the record straight, could carping about Britney’s lack of credits be part of a trend, along with the Natalie Portman/Sarah Lane palaver? It seems, thanks to the reduced royalties and different consumption models for entertainment, that we are looking at a future where even top entertainers will only earn a comfortable, rather than superstar-grade, income. With less money coming in, such entertainers will be asked to do more for themselves (write material as well as perform and publicize it), instead of relying on teams of songwriters, dance-doubles, script doctors, editors and publicists in order to project a composite star persona. Will performers like Britney, able to call on the extensive talents of others, soon become a rarity on the pop culture landscape? Will this even be a bad thing?

Oh Britney Britney – Heather Bright’s blog

Watching War Online

The Violence in the Media debate has focused primarily on mass media, conceived and created by institutions and targeted at a mass audience. The ubiquity of cell phone cameras, and the ease with which a video shot on one can be uploaded to the internet, has changed all that. The technology means that we can now see raw, unregulated violence online, whether it’s the exploits of a happy slapping gang in South London, or troops opening fire on protestors in Libya.

What effect does this have on our collective and individual psyche? Xeni Jardin writes in her thoughtful post in today’s Guardian:

…human beings do not have an endless capacity for empathy, and our capacity is less so in the [un]mediated, disembodied, un-real realm of online video. At what point does access to war gore become harmful to the viewer, and at what point do each of us who observe this material for the purpose of reporting the story around it, become numb or begin to experience secondary trauma?

There’s also a concern that, even with a cell phone, footage can be faked, re-cut or re-mediated in order to manipulate both events and the viewer. What purports to be the raw, bloody truth, an eye-witness account from a non-partisan bystander, may actually be deliberate, heavily political propaganda. For decades we have viewed news-gatherers as relatively “trusted sources”, believed that they report what is happening from a third person perspective – although those reports might be subject to political bias. However, citizen journalism shifts our news into a first person framework, showing the Who, Where and some of the What, but never addressing the How and the Why. Without that vital explanation and mediation, news footage can indeed leave the viewer feeling traumatized, numb and confused.

As mainstream news outlets cut overseas budgets and turn ever-inwards towards freely and cheaply available celebrity gossip and entertainment stories, concerned citizens need to seek their news independently, often turning to ‘primary’ sources such as cellphone videos and Twitter commentary. However, we need to educate ourselves to regulate and analyse this information, putting ourselves in the position of editor, double checking facts, assessing the choices made in framing and representation. We need to become our own gatekeepers, ensuring that we’re not numb, or traumatized, and that we can give the death of a stranger the importance and respect it deserves no matter how many times it plays out in a tiny online window.

Atrocity Exhibition – The Guardian

If it ain’t broke…

When all the makers of a sequel can do is completely rehash the original (just in a different location), then that’s not usually good news for audiences. The Hangover worked because it felt fresh – a quality The Hangover Part II seems to be lacking: haven’t we seen all these gags before, in Vegas? The first movie’s comedy came from the way it took so many left turns (a baby? A tiger? Mike Tyson?) and defied expectations of “what happens next”. It became the most successful R-rated comedy of all time.

So the studio response is natural, if unfortunate for us. Why mess with a winning formula? Pump out a sequel that almost exactly imitates the first, and make that formula formulaic. Although I did laugh at “Thi-land”.

Who Are These People Who Are Excited About The Hangover Part II – Devin’s Advocate