Marketing out of control at FX

I have broken my FX boycott, and the enterprise now lies around me in ruins, proof that I cannot mobilize public opinion even the tiniest bit.

I have a good excuse, though.  To boycott FX would mean missing The Riches, and this would mean missing Minnie Driver, a woman so exquisitely talented that she must now be regarded as perhaps Hollywood’s greatest gift to television. (The contenders for this honor being Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Lili Taylor, and Kyra Sedgwick.)

So I am watching the April 22 episode and low and behold, there is evidence of marketing mischief and meddling everywhere. 

First, Eddie Izzard, as Wayne Malloy, is seen driving a GMC Acadia.  This is one of the sponsors of the The Riches and ads play several times in the course of this episode.  I don’t like product placement, as I have argued here, but as long as we TIVO through the ads this is perhaps forgivable.

But about one quarter through the episode, FX puts Minnie Driver, as Dahlia Malloy, in a GMC product on a GM lot.  Driver is sitting in the Acadia, talking on the phone. 

A neighbor comes up and says, "Ew!  Nice wheels!"

Minnie Driver responds, "I want to buy one."

Neighbor, "You sure?"

Minnie Driver, "Yeah."

Then a salesman walks up and says,

"So what are you thinking? GMC Acadium?" 

Neighbor, "How much down?"

Minnie Driver, "Yeah, how much down?"

Salesman, laughing, "Zero money down." 

Neighbor, "What’s the sticker price?"

Salesman, "It’s right there.  That includes a navigation radio with a rear view camera system."

Driver, "It’s zero money down?"

Later, Ms. Driver is made to say,

"It’s a great deal."

"I like that car though!"

and, once more behind the wheel of the GMC Acadia. 

"I’m feeling inspired.  I never bought a car before."

Holy ****.  This may very well be the most egregious example of commercial interference ever registered in our culture.  Recall that my original objection to FX was that they put an ad for one of their shows in the corner of the screen for the duration of an episode.  I thought this was a little much. 

But to put a sales pitch in the middle of the dramatic action, and to reduce a dramatic genius like Minnie Driver to a product pitcher, this is insufferable. 

If ever you doubted this Driver’s talent, check out The Riches.  It is an astonishing performance.  No sooner was FX gifted with this performance than they decided to make Ms. Driver start selling cars.  ("It’s zero money down?")  This is a little like asking Baryshnikov if he won’t mind demonstrating the latest fitness gear from the Home Shopping Network ("Zighmazter!") during a performance at the New York City Ballet. 

Now we know marketers have been meddling with cultural content for sometime now.  Here’s what Cameron Crowe had to say about the issue, roughly a decade ago

You have more and more people coming into the tent with the creative guys.  You have marketing and concept testers, advertising people.  What you find gets the high numbers is easily appealing subjects: a baby, a big, broad joke, a high concept.  Everything is tested.  The effect is to lessen the gamble, but in fact you destroy a writer’s confidence and creativity once so many people are invited into the tent."

But notice that in this case, the marketer is interfering with creative content.  But in the FX case, the marketer is actually insinuating the product in the creative content. 

Now there is a weird sort of solution to product placement problem.  We only need change the polarity.  We need to use TV shows as laboratories for the creation of product and brand ideas which then may be exported to the world.  As Rob Walker was saying on Sunday in the New York Times,

Pete Hottelet … has started a business devoted to bringing to life certain products from movies. His business is called Omni Consumer Products, a name borrowed from the fictional megacorporation in “Robocop.” In addition to Brawndo, Omni has acquired from Paramount the license to market Sex Panther, a made-up cologne from the Will Ferrell vehicle “Anchorman” (“150% More Awesome Than Any Other Cologne. Ever.”).

I am not squeemish about the interactions of culture and commerce.  I am inclined to agree with the likes of Tyler Cowen that on the whole, culture and commerce have been better for one another than generally supposed by the guardian intellectual.  But this FX event must mark the limiting case.  Surely, it stands as proof that there are moments when culture and commerce must keep their distance. 

The first question: who’s to blame?  It is hard for me to believe
that most everyone on the set is embarrassed by this thing.  The
question is, who is the culprit?  Presumably, this scandal takes us
into the upper reaches of senior management at FX.

The second question: how do we get FX to stop and discourage others from starting?  I would suggest a boycott but, well, that didn’t really turn out so well the first time.  Plus, we would miss all of Ms. Driver’s subsequent performances. 

Any thoughts on next steps would be very much appreciated. 

References

Rountree, Cathleen.  2008.  Film Actresses Find Second Lives on TV.  Women in World Cinema with Cathleen Rountree. here.

Walker, Rob.  2008.  This Joke’s On You.  New York Times.  May 4, 2008. here

Weinraub, Bernard. 1997. Hollywood learns small is beautiful. Globe and Mail/New York Times. February 25, 1997 (GM): D3.

Acknowledgments

Elana Swartz, my colleague at C3 MIT. 

7 thoughts on “Marketing out of control at FX”

  1. Friday Night Lights had a scene like that. It was slightly more defensible, as one of the main characters, Jason Street, had become a car salesman, and was learning on the job. But they spent a whole scene of the “Humble Pie” episode having him extol the virtues of some Chevy SUV to a potential customer, and the climactic moment is him making the sale. And then they cut to an actual commercial for that SUV. Yuck.

  2. i maybe wrong but isn’t this like a throwback to the early days of television when ‘soaps’ were made to actually sell soap etc?

  3. First, no comment on the irony that the actor pushing cars is Minnie ‘Driver’?

    Grant, I think this is going to only become more prevalent. I would expect to see big corporations create their own distribution channels (online, mobile, broadcast, etc.) and use that to create ‘shows’ that feature loose storylines around the promotion of products (a little coffee with your sugar?).

    Pure ‘art’ will be pushed into ghettos (niche cable tv, indie radio stations…), while major outlets will fight the corporation-owned outlets by offering even lower common denominator material.

    Those niche cable and indie outlets? That’s Bravo TV, which started out highbrow and now is completely commercial, and indie rock stopped being indie about 20 years ago.

    That’s the circle of (commercial) life.

  4. Bah. Or “blargh,” as people seem to be saying these days. Gassy pirates, I guess.

    They’ve been doing this crap to ads for years; it was only a matter of time before they crapped up the shows, too.

    Rick paints a grim but highly realistic picture of our future, I fear. Even HBO got its cheese on a few times during the Sopranos–I’m thinking in particular of one unfortunate episode with a RAZR.

    Speaking of, isn’t Edie Falco god’s real gift to TV? She blows me away in every single thing I see her do.

  5. If you want to stop the behavior then you have to eradicate the source. In this case, FX is in the business of creating content for the purposes of selling advertisements. They may have crossed the line but only the advertiser can move that line back where it belongs.

    I suggest everyone that is outraged by this go out and test drive a GMC Acadia. Spend a good hour with the salesman and right when he tries to “close” you respond, “Oh, I would’ve bought this vehicle but GM’s flagrant advertorial in The Riches turned me off on GM products. I’ve decided to buy a foreign model.”

    Then get up, walk off the lot and hope that enough of your generation take to protesting with their wallets too. If GM gets enough complaints from car salesman they won’t do this anymore.

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