Every day, it seems, brings new stories in the papers about increasingly absurd reality television concepts in the works, as well as increasingly nefarious schemes for the clever blurring of the lines between advertising and entertainment. On Monday the New York Times got a two-fer when it reported on a planned reality show that embeds advertising in the very plot points of its narrative: In The Runner, contestants "might be instructed to buy a Big Mac and fries at, say, a McDonald's in Ohio," Bill Carter wrote. "Or the runner might be told to step inside a Starbucks for a decaf latte or dial a number on a Nokia cell phone or pull out a Citibank ATM card for a cash withdrawal."
Are you scandalized? Might a marketing-saturated nation recoil in disgust from such a blatant display? I'm not so sure. It seems to me the relationship that American consumers have with advertising is more complicated than many of us would believe. On the one hand is the worry that viewers can be hoodwinked with stealthy, soft-sell maneuvers. I doubt it; it's no particular surprise, given the level of advertising bombardment in everyday life, that we're practically a nation of media-cultural critics, well-practiced in the art of spotting product placements for exactly what they are.
The related belief is that when viewers can figure out that there's marketing in the message, they resist. If that is so, then how do you explain how thoroughly contemporary teen-agers—who are forever being described as the most marketing-savvy generation of all time—have embraced band O-Town, which was manufactured before our very eyes on the show Making the Band and whose debut record has gone platinum and peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard charts? And even if you concede that maybe the teens could be tricked just that one time, how to figure that a total retread of the exact same concept seems to be working again as another fake, made-on-TV band, Eden's Crush, recently reached the top 10 with a gold single of its own?
Moreover, the ad-entertainment convergence is a two-way street: The entertainers have lately been co-opting or riding the coattails of the popularity of commercial icons. Today Stuart Elliot notes in the Times that the makers of That '70s Show hope to boost ratings of tonight's episode by running "classic" ads from that decade, such as the Mean Joe Green Coke commercial. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported on an upcoming film called Foodfight, whose animated stars will include a slew of commercial mascots like Charlie the Tuna and Twinkie the Kid as well as fake product representatives—who, the producers hope, will get picked up and licensed by real companies. (The plot involves vanquishing the villainous Brand X; comments one exec: "The brands win, as they always do.")
That's entertainment? Well, apparently it is. So I say that it's time to stop fooling around and push the reality trend and the marketing-as-entertainment trend to the next level, together. Enough with the shows revolving around dysfunctional dating. Let us instead have a reality show that is explicitly about marketing.
Let us round up a dozen or more good-looking contestants. Let us watch them brainstorm a new product—it doesn't matter what it is. Let's follow them to the focus groups, let's see the experiments with packaging fonts and colors, let's hear the heated arguments over the name. Let's tag along as they launch their guerilla marketing war, stenciling urban sidewalks, schmoozing with influential "cool kids," donning ape suits or fright wigs to get noticed in the background of the Today show or Total Request Live. Instead of aspiring pop stars, let's get up close and personal with aspiring product designers and marketers and ad sharpies. Every week, the weakest member of the product team gets kicked off. (Go study semiotics, you loser; you don't have what it takes!) Bring on Making the Brand!
The winning marketers get to sell their product line to a consumer giant and are themselves absorbed by a prestigious yet edgy marketing firm. And the rest of us, the viewers at home, may proceed to purchase and enjoy whatever previously unimagined thing the clever young brand-mates have concocted—which, in the end, means that we all win. Don't you think?