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From Product Placement to Product Displacement

Posted on September 9, 2011 and read 4,584 times

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jbp From Product Placement to Product DisplacementBrent Pulford
Right Brain, Creative Communications
A Dull Roar

Everybody knows how valuable screen time in popular movies and TV shows can be for brands. Remember the Junior Mints episode of Seinfeld? Harold and Kumar go to White Castle? To see their brand front and center in a popular film or TV series is the dream of every manufacturer.

Today there’s hardly a major television series that doesn’t have the fingerprints of some – or several – brands all over it. American Idol got into bed with Coke very early on ensuring that each of its celebrity judges drank from clearly branded Coke containers. If you recall the often strange and erratic behavior of former judge Paula Abdul there is some speculation as to what exactly was in those containers at any given time, but from Coke’s perspective that was academic, it was the brand registration and association with TV’s top show that counted, and they got that in spades.

Coke was one of the first brands to embrace the idea put forward in the book, Madison & Vine, suggesting that the future of advertising and entertainment depended on the two industries converging. Back in 2003, Stephen J. Heyer, then CEO of Coke, in addressing a conference of ad people and entertainment people, put it this way: “If I’m right about our network and its power, we can help open a movie with our packages, we can popularize and sell new music; we can drive awareness, differentiation and interest for you… just as you can for us.”

Not everybody was happy about this. Artists saw their art being co-opted by big business. But the huge companies that produced and distributed that art were thrilled. They were more than happy to jump into bed with corporate America, to share the risk of launching new films, music and television. And for a time it seemed a marriage made in heaven. Companies bid in the multiple millions to have their brands appear in blockbuster movies. Starbucks not only served coffee, it distributed music. And to be fair to all concerned, it’s hard to say that the quality of the output was noticeably diminished by the arrangement. The future was so bright everybody had to wear shades, er, RayBans.

Still, as anybody in the movie or television business knows, no story worth its salt has any value if there isn’t some drama, unforeseen obstacles to overcome, twists and turns that keep the audience coming back for more. Unfortunately one particular drama is unfolding for a brand and a TV show that wasn’t planned for. Abercrombie and Fitch meet Jersey Shore. Here’s a headline from today’s Globe and Mail:
Abercrombie offers to pay Jersey Shore cast to stop wearing the brand.

It appears that Abercrombie & Fitch don’t believe that Snookie and The Situation are doing their brand any favors by wearing their clothes on the popular MTV reality series. While that may, on the surface, seem counter intuitive to the whole Madison & Vine thing, a closer look might help to make sense of the problem, at least from A&F’s perspective. First lets see how Abercrombie likes to present its clothes and on whom.

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Ignoring onanism and the fact that the clothes don’t figure very prominently at all in the photos, what I see is a preference for the blue eyed, blond, All-American hunk who appears to share the vapidness of the Jersey Shore clan, but none of the genetics. A&F has, in the past, gotten into trouble for overtly favoring light haired, blue eyed models who they’ve decided represent the ideal for their American classic clothes. But that part of the discussion comes later.

First, lets compare them to a couple of the stars from Jersey Shore.

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Bare chests, over developed pectoral muscles and a possibly pregnant Snookie notwithstanding, these Jersey Shore folks just don’t look like Abercrombie & Fitch models. They’re dark haired, ethnic looking, a little chunky and famous for being trashy, loud mouthed public embarrassments: such goofy stereotypes that they were almost booted out of the fashion capital of the world, Italy. If the Italians won’t lay claim to them and Italian-Americans feel denigrated by them, then how the hell should the Aryan youth favored by Abercrombie & Fitch feel? Not kinship. So for the first time that I’m aware of, in this the age of product placement, we have the very first incident of product displacement.

This particular circumstance begs far too many questions to answer here. But the obvious is, how far do the rights of a corporation extend to protect and control their brand and how it’s presented? Clearly no deal existed between A&F and Jersey Shore. The folks on the Shore likely have a wardrobe allowance that allows them to purchase the clothes they like. Wouldn’t be “reality” if it were otherwise. On the other hand A&F didn’t pay any money to see their clothes featured on the show so shouldn’t they be flattered? Shouldn’t they see this as a valuable, unmerited gift? Depends on how fastidious the marketing people at A&F are. If they’ve invested all these millions to present their clothes in a certain way, to shape the way their brand is perceived in the market place, then a TV show comes along, exercising its own freedom of expression, and undoes all that hard work, well, who is the aggrieved party? Given that A&F is offering money to the guidos and guidettes to cease and desist, they apparently recognize there’s no legal recourse. I’m guessing there’s a dollar amount that will be acceptable to the producers of the Shore. Nevertheless, if that approach fails, they could always try to convince Snookie and the Sitch to die their hair blond and get blue contacts.




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