Subliminal messaging, bought and paid for

Here’s a mind-bender for you: If I am watching a movie that stars Jimmy Stewart, then the world that’s depicted in the movie is a world that does not include Jimmy Stewart. Otherwise, you’d have characters in the movie looking at his character and saying, “Dude, you look just like the actor, Jimmy Stewart.” And the story would stall as everyone marveled at how much L.B. Jeffries looks exactly like Jimmy Stewart.

I am just as easily distracted – though not as amused – by the concept of product placement. On the one hand, if I see a red aluminum can on Leslie Knope’s desk and it’s marked “COLA,” well that’s kind of an insult to my intelligence. Everyone knows it’s Coke, but they can’t call it Coke because that would be copyright infringement. The ridiculousness of the situation becomes a distraction. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough pixelated logos on reality shows because the owners refused to pay for the “infringement” to know a paid product placement when I see it – which is just as annoying as that COLA.

All of this is to say that I really question the need to pay Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide $900,000 in taxpayer money for what amounts to the ultimate in product placement: storylines about Obamacare in popular television dramas.

Hollywood writers have a long and proud tradition of infusing their socio-political agenda into their work without paying PR professionals to egg them on. (For example, every “very special episode” of anything… seasons 4-11 of M*A*S*H*… and of course the more recent and subtle examples such as West Wing and now Scandal.) I see no reason to pay Ogilvy to suggest to Shonda Rhimes that she incorporate stories about uninsured people into the latest Grey’s Anatomy or Scandal scripts – I’m quite sure she’s already working on it.

The state of California sees itself as the national model for creating a “clearing house” where the beneficiaries of Obamacare can evaluate their (hopefully) dizzying array of insurance choices. Its plan to pay Ogilvy for some appropriate PR is just one of the tactics they’re employing to not only get folks to sign up, but to absolutely love it. Appropriate, perhaps, in a state whose chief export is entertainment fiction – but a complete waste of money since Hollywood’s already fully on board with this one. Haven’t you seen the trailers on AMC? “The injustice of a pre-existing condition” is already a story arc on Season 5 of The Walking Dead.

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