Thursday, 29 December 2011

How Being Erica took Product Integration Too Far

Wonder what Being Erica's Erin Karpluk is trying to sell us here?

Being Erica has been circulating well in my library, especially for those who are in their teens and early twenties and female.  I never got into it and found the time shifting tedious (I am not a lover of fantasy anyway).  I am also not a member of the target demographic.

See below an article in the National Post about product placement.  As mentioned, I also found the neverending commercials to submit a pizza eating video annoying and troubling.

This was the year I stopped watching Being Erica. Technically, 2011 may be the year everyone stopped watching the quirky CBC dramedy, as the show just concluded its fourth and potentially final season, with all the storylines tied up in a tearful Christmas bow.
Or so I hear — I didn’t actually make it to the finale. I broke up with Erica, my TV BFF, because she tried way too hard to sell me a car.
The Toronto-set program is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, but I’d never miss an episode, drawn in by Erin Karpluk as an underachieving-yet-loveable thirtysomething who, over time, manages to turn her regret-filled life around with the help of a therapist that allows her to time travel. (What’s not to love?)
It’s charming, critically praised, and has done well internationally, with distribution in 160 countries and plans in the works for U.S. and U.K. versions.
Perhaps all the success went to its head, though. The product placement, a.k.a. “branded entertainment,” became obvious in the third season, when Erica’s friend and business partner, Julianne, bought a car that got a lot of enthusiastic screen time — a development that also happened to earn numerous marketing accolades.

The trend continued this season, with Julianne quitting coffee to acquire a taste for Tetley Infusions iced tea. And during (official) commercials, McCain/Being Erica spots called on viewers to audition for a pizza-eating cameo with extra cheese.

The proverbial last straw, though, came with the fourth season’s eighth episode, which begins with Erica (inexplicably) test-driving a car with Julianne. There’s a salesman in the back seat extolling the virtues of the vehicle. Here’s some dialogue:
Sales guy OK, time for the coolest feature — let’s park between those two [closely spaced] cars.
Erica What? There? That’s a little bit tight. I kinda suck at parallel parking.
Sales guy Trust me, so do I, which is why the Focus can parallel park itself!
Erica No way.
Sales guy Way.
I didn’t even finish watching the episode.
The lesson here is one I hope TV’s creators will take to heart, and it is this: Having your quirky indie show characters speak ad copy will render your program unwatchable.
I’m no fool. I know that shows need sponsors. I know about torrents and PVRs and budget cuts. But how are viewers supposed to remain loyal to characters who will so blatantly trade our affection for a dollar?
None of this is new, of course. Since E.T. ate his first Reese’s Piece in 1982, marketers have been devising new and creative ways to get ad messages out of the commercial-break ghetto. It’s now a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. We know American Idol is Coke and The X Factor is Pepsi based on the logos on the judges’ tables. We know Jack Bauer drove a Ford in 24, a show in which Cisco Systems had a supporting role in saving the world.
Some shows can get away with the integration of brand and story — as opposed to simple placement — that Being Erica attempted so jarringly. 30 Rock is frequently cited as an example, as its spoof context allows for brand mentions that serve both the advertiser (by communicating favourable messages about the product) and the audience (by being funny), as in this scene in an early episode where Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) brings up product integration to Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) and Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit):
Jack Look, I know how this sounds.
Liz No, come on, Jack. We’re not doing that. We’re not compromising the integrity of the show to sell —
Pete Wow. This is Diet Snapple?
Liz I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?
It’s not uncontroversial, but at least it’s meta, and it works here. Similarly, Seinfeld’s classic “Junior Mints” episode, in which Kramer drops a candy into the open chest of a man undergoing surgery, may not even register as paid placement, so natural was the mint-driven action in the context of that show.
Being Erica, unfortunately, does not have the advantage of being a cynical comedy or an action show where product placement heightens the camp (oh hello there, Jack Bauer). Quite the opposite, it’s an earnest show on a public broadcaster about being your best self.
Not everyone can pull off explicit product integration, and shows like this one should think twice before trying.
When the U.K. version comes out, I plan to watch it, but I can only hope that Erica’s British counterpart knows how to parallel park.

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