Branding The Cattle: Assessing Product Integration In Modern Television

Community (NBC)- “Basic Rocket Science”

Preface: The following is an essay I wrote in October for my Intro To College Writing course with the topic of advertising and branding. I focused on product placement and integration talking about areas such as The Office and KFCs October advertising on Community, Running Wilde, and The Good Guys.

Coke or Pepsi? At first this might come off as a seemingly simple question, but rather it is one that can tell a great deal about a person.  Someone who drinks Coke relishes in nostalgia, it takes them back to being a little kid and grabbing an icy cool Coca-Cola bottle out of the fridge.  On the other hand a Pepsi drinker is someone who enjoys being hip and staying up to date with modern trends.  The product is essentially the same, yet the market and advertising is completely different.  It’s not the product that matters much, but rather the brand.

In 2002 the UK business magazine The Economist ran an article titled Who’s Wearing The Trousers? that directly captures this style of marketing, “The new marketing approach is to build a brand not a product – to sell a lifestyle or a personality, to appeal to emotions.”  Advertisements try to convey this in quick thirty-second spots, attempting to derive emotion from situations with little or no context.  Needless to say this is a difficult task and one that is becoming less and less important when compared to rising use of a tactic known as production integration.  Product integration, also known as product placement, involves placing existing merchandise into a TV show to help further get a brand’s name out. By directly incorporating products into television shows the item becomes apart of a character’s life and can be a factoring point in creating their fictitious personality.  An ad can sell a product, but it’s product integration that can truly help sell a lifestyle brand.  And if done right, product placement can be an exceptional way to get an item on consumers’ mind without them even noticing.

A show that consistently has some of the best use of product integration is the American version of The Office.  The setting alone makes the series rip for product placement as it deals with traditional office supplies that are easily branded.  As a paper supplying company Dundler Mufflin is a rival of big business retailers such as Staples.  Often this is a big part of the show as Staples gets numerous name drops as their business does much better than the small company the show focuses on.  In season 3 Staples plays a large part of a story arc in which the character Dwight leaves Dundler Mufflin to work at a local Staples.  The company is integrated perfectly, never feeling intrusive but rather a natural extension of the show’s world.

The same can be said for restaurant Chili’s, the show’s main sponsor during its second season.  One episode takes place almost entirely at the chain restaurant and another features it highly in its main plot, yet in both instances the location never feels out of place.  It’s believable that in this small town that these everyday middle class office workers would have dinner at a Chili’s.  The set is unmistakably a Chili’s replica with their logo all over the set, but the key is that they never call too much attention to the product.  The only mentions of direct Chili’s products are the appetizer known as Awesome Blossom, which is causally ordered, and briefly the Chili’s baby back-ribs jingle is sung.  While singing a restaurant’s jingle might sound like over use of product placement, it fits totally in character that over the top branch manager Michael Scott would randomly burst out into song and even better it is used as a bonding moment between him and a potential client.  He sings the song in an attempt to make the client laugh and succeeds.  On paper the song seems like shameless product placement, but the way it’s integrated is actually a crucial moment in the episode, signifying their budding friendship. There’s no moment where the show feels like it’s pushing a product onto you, but rather it feels as if your being invited into the restaurant with characters.  It personifies Chili’s as a fun, warm restaurant that brings people together among good food and drinks.  It’s no longer about the Awesome Blossoms, but rather the awesome memories you’ll make.  Michael uses the restaurants friendly atmosphere to his advantage in order to make his important client open up and make a deal out of their relationship rather than just dollars.  Their common knowledge of marketing jingles and delicious appetizers furthered their camaraderie and in the end furthered the business deal.

In Naomi Klein’s essay on branding and marketing No Logo she talks about this very notion that it’s the brand not the product that you’re selling.  “Overnight, ‘Brands, not products!’ became the rallying cry for a marketing renaissance led by a new breed of companies… Branding, in its truest and most advanced incarnations, is about corporate transcendence”.  The actual product itself is a small factor when it comes to buying merchandise; rather it’s the brand that gets people to buy something.  You’re not buying just a soda; you’re buying into a lifestyle that comes with the soda.  In order to achieve successful product placement you need to develop an image for your brand first to portray it properly on TV.  The key to success for these companies integration on The Office lies in them knowing exactly what their brand is and then using that to their advantage.

One company in particular that doesn’t seem to be quite sure what their brand exactly is would be Kentucky Fried Chicken.  For the past decade or so the KFC brand has been somewhat in a flux, struggling to keep up with the changing times.  For many years the acronym KFC was simply the nickname for the restaurant, but in 1991 they adopted the nickname officially in an attempt to move away from the negatively viewed term “fried”, which had become synonymous with the notion of unhealthy eating.  The company’s very image was changed to be more hip and modern with bolder stylized graphics.  In 2007 the company revised their major brand changes but reverting back to the full name Kentucky Fried Chicken and adapting a more retro style to invoke the feeling of nostalgia when eating at the location.  Despite being put back into the title the company attempts to push more non-fried food such as with their launch of Kentucky Grilled Chicken in 2009.  KFC doesn’t seem to be quite sure what it is and what it stands for and this is directly translated in the way they’re marketed.

Running Wilde (FOX)Running Wilde (FOX)

In fall 2010 KFC began a large campaign using product integration within television appearing in Running Wilde, The Good Guys, and Community.  Three shows that have very little in common other than the fact that they get low ratings and are all relatively new comedies (Community being in its sophomore season and the others their freshman).  Very little connects them together, being in general an odd pairing of shows to market to simultaneously.  In an age where handling product placement correctly is so vital, two of KFC’s integrations are excruciatingly poorly done and a prime example of how the KFC brand just doesn’t come across as much of anything other than that lame fried chicken place run by a colonel.  In Running Wilde the dimwitted wealthy main character Steve is offered KFC but he claims he doesn’t know what the acronym stands for.  From the background a women comes out and tells him “KFC makes original-recipe, world-famous chicken, the bucket is its iconic takeout packaging…” The line falls flat, barely working as a joke and clearly stands out as an ad rather than an integrated part of the show.  The Good Guys does something similar with one character asking another what they’re eating for lunch and the other then goes on to explain the doublicious sandwich from KFC he’s eating.  The first character takes a bite and states “They named it right. It’s not singlelicious.”  Another clear this is an ad moment that distracts from the show and tunes viewers out.  While companies like Staples and Burger King (as seen in the famous Arrested Development episode “Motherboy XXX”) had successfully performed the task of product integration, KFC seems to be struggling behind.

While two of the shows used the incorporation unsuccessfully, Community’s KFC placement is actually something of brilliance.  Rather than forcing an ad that reeks of corporate influence into one of the main character’s lines, this unique comedy decided to use KFC as a fuel for their jokes.  The role the company plays in the show is a commentary itself on how far the company seems to behind in the times.  The main plot involves the show’s study group getting stuck in a space simulator from the ‘80s sponsored by KFC called the “Kentucky Fried Chicken 11 Herbs And Space Experience”.  Housed inside of an old Winnebago, the simulator is a play on product placement itself as it is filled to the brim with weird references barely making sense to KFC and their products right down to the ship’s motherboard, Systematic Android Network Diode Energy Rocket System aka SANDERS, which is represented by a 24-bit version of their famous mascot, the Colonel.  At one point Joel McHale’s character Jeff likens SANDERS to an Atari cartridge showing just how behind the company seems to be.  In order for the gang to leave the ship they must finish the simulator that involves keeping the herbs and spices levels in tact.  At one point they even mock poor integration with a bit of meta-dialogue the show is known for.  “The press is here. I’m trying to buy us some time with these doublicious sandwiches, but they thought I was doing product integration for KFC,” states Ken Jeong’s character Señor Chang towards the end of the episode.

S.A.N.D.E.R.S.

The core issue that lies in KFC’s product integration is that it says nothing about the characters and as such says nothing about the brand.  In all three instances no main character actually is a regular KFC consumer and that is the core of product integration.  The “jokes” that were written in Running Wilde and The Good Guys did nothing to strengthen the brand, rather they were just poorly done mini ads for the product.  Community in contrast was able to turn KFC the brand into an actual character.  That rundown space simulator Winnebago had real personality to it.  Even if the joke was that all the KFC stuff was old and outdated it still worked to help sell their brand despite the fact the company itself doesn’t seem quite so sure what it’s brand or even it’s offical name is.

Product integration typically carries a negative connotation, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.  If the brands are meshed in well enough it should appear seamless to the viewers. In fact many showrunners are in favor of this type of product placement.  Shawn Ryan, the creator of FX’s The Shield, has actually stated one of his top five biggest complaints as a showrunner is product integration, stating they don’t allow him to do enough.  He wrote a line in his upcoming show The Chicago Code stating an exact brand of beer and champagne, but FOX rejected the line stating the line had to be generic drinks in order to not block off potential partners whose product competes with the one mentioned.  Ryan fought the network claiming it had to be those precise brands as generic titles simply just don’t mean the same thing.  Its entire meaning would be changed.  Luckily FOX later agreed and allowed the line to stay as is.  It’s little details like real merchandise names that help make a TV show richer and more real.  If used correctly product placement could not only enhance companies’ brand image, but also enhance the shows themselves by lessening the gap between the fictional and real world.

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