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I want my [your brand here] MTV

 

Margaret Lyons

Time Out Chicago

August 7, 2008

Lots of scenes in and around a Sears department store. Characters bedecked in Sears garb. Each transitional montage stuffed with shots of the store and its cheery employees, while extras conspicuously tote Sears shopping bags in damn-near every scene. But The American Mall is no ordinary commercial; it’s a made-for-MTV movie musical.

Lousy writing, garish characters in fugly outfits and top-to-bottom stupidity are practically a given in commercials aimed at tweens, so seeing those elements in this down-market High School Musical knock-off isn’t surprising, exactly. And the truth is that American Mall is so terrible the Sears product placements seem to be the only kernel of authenticity. (Yes! Sears really does have items for sale! Less realistic: teenage janitors breaking into song. Or…dreams coming true.) The mall owner’s evil daughter (The O.C. alum Autumn Reeser) tries to oust the wholesome piano store from the facilities—and thus ruin aspiring songstress Ally’s college fund. C’mon, guys, let’s show her teamwork and a saccharine pop beat can conquer all. Even in commercial-saturated times, the unusually aggressive product placement in The American Mall is off-putting. It’s one thing to have Randy, Paula and Simon sip from Coca-Cola cups, but doesn’t this cross the line? Well, it might if there actually were a line.

The delineation between creative content and paid-for advertising has never been blurrier. The labels worn on Dirty Sexy Money, the cell phones on 24, the chain restaurants patronized by characters on The Office, the cars on every show you can think of—these are all ads. Sears is the megaproduct strenuously overplaced in Mall, but the problem isn’t the advertising so much as how poorly it’s executed: The Sears mentions stick out awkwardly, and nothing could be less synonymous with teenage coolness than the struggling retailer.

Consumer-advocacy groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and Commercial Alert argue that the omnipresence of product placements is bad for the unsuspecting public, who won’t know what constitutes the real programming and what parts of it are advertisements. But that implies there’s a distinction between the two, when the truth is it’s all advertising. Along with lunch, there’s no such thing as a free mention: If you hear or see a brand name on TV, that’s not an accident. If you’re watching television, someone is trying to sell you something; maybe it’s through product placement, maybe it’s through a traditional ad or maybe it’s through an alliance to a network or cluster of shows. It’s called commercial television for a reason.

Networks and studios don’t create television shows for the joy of will-they-or-won’t-they romances. They’re businesses; they exist to make money. Wishing they’d put aside the bottom line to offer writers, directors, actors and crew members more creative freedom is like wishing Apple would just make its products cheaper already so everyone could have an iPhone. Shows stick around as long as they’re financially viable. If I have to choose between 30 Rock getting canceled because a small viewership means it doesn’t bring in a ton of ad revenue and 30 Rock staying on the air thanks to in-episode product placements, I’ll pick the latter every day and twice on Thursdays. The same goes for The Office and its less-ironic Staples mentions.

Product integration, while not new, has spread rapidly in the last few years. According to Nielsen Media Research, product placements on prime-time network shows increased 39 percent in the first quarter of 2008, with 15,404 occurrences on the top ten shows alone. On cable, the most product-placed shows had 50,940 mentions in the first three months of 2007 and 59,308 in the first three months of 2008.

In June, the Writers Guild of America West petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider its rules governing in-show advertising because the WGAW’s members want to protect their creative integrity. The WGAW urged the FCC to adopt a “real-time disclosure” rule, which would mandate a crawl—like the headlines scrolling across the bottom of the screen on CNN—any time an advertiser pays for a product mention. Does one of the Desperate Housewives happen to name the kind of car she drives? Up would come a scroll reminding you that, while Gabby is indeed brand obsessed, the car company bought that comment. The FCC, which already limits product placement in children’s programming, has announced it’s pursuing some kind of product-placement–restricting legislation.

It’s hard to believe anyone watching American Mall wouldn’t know Sears paid for its leading role, though it’s harder still to believe that Sears shelled out for the chance to participate in this truly awful movie. What’s next, Disney putting out a scathing anticonsumerism manifesto?

 

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