Product placement planet

As the New York Times recently reported, companies are creating their own films, TV networks and “webasodes” under the rubric of “branded content.” The fact that I am writing about it is a tribute to the “marketability” of the concept. People ignore ads, so this is part of the commercial backlash to wire your eyes and ears. Until the novelty wears off, keep a look out for the ridiculous and sublime. With news of Anheuser-Busch’s soon-to-come BudTV (or should we call it “MisogynyTVforTeens”?), I’m loath to predict “reality” TV shows that in a real alternate reality would be called things like “Hangover Island,” “STD Survivor,” or “DWI Date Rape.” OK, so I’m a little off color here. But extreme times call for excessive parody.

Call it product placement planet in which all things brand are reality. This is the future of marketing, and the future is now. Don’t be surprised, though, because “brand channels” are the ultimate logical progression of a commercialized media system. After all, isn’t every advertisement also a compact, self-evident, self-contained ideological lesson plan on the merits and wonders of the commodities system?

One example that is worthy of a closer look (thank you media gods!) is instantdef.com, Snickers’ version of one of these self-contained brand universes proliferating the Web. I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, so I’m sure it’s value as a viral meme has already been sapped as it has ebbed and flowed through the sea of marketing cool. But here goes. If you are an educator, I recommend this site as one of those great “teachable moments” that appears more often than not these days.

From the Snickers logo intro that’s animated like a chocolate version of the Universal Pictures planet, instantdef.com is a five-webasode series (each between four and ten minutes). The trailer is at that top of this post. The story is about the “hijacking” of hip hop by an evil corporate dude (“Minister LP”) and his boss, Bad Guy (they are both midgets- What’s up with diminished black man trope in our culture?). The story is narrated by a talking dog (that sounds African American), who is part of a team of “authentic” hip hoppers represented by Black Eyed Peas‘ Fergie, will.i.am, Taboo and apl.de.ap. who drive around in a van that is very reminiscent of Scooby Doo. Partiers have bottles of juice that look like bottles of JD. The dog tells us the bad dudes are people who don’t “care about the culture.”

The midget boss tells the Black Eyed Peas: “I’m DVD. You’re just VHS played out.” At the end of the first episode, an African American TV news reporter asks the audience, “Is Minister LP really for real, or just a fabrication, justification, of some corporation’s imagination?” Hmmm.

It turns out the heroes live in a Snickers factory (and actually work there cracking nuts while donning Snicker uniforms that look uncannily like orange prison jumpers). The crew survives a “cosmic catatonic mind blast disrupter” that interacts with Snickers to alter their DNA. It’s the Snickers that saves them; their “life essence” is incarnated, becoming “super dope super heroes,” Instantdef. In their new hybridized forms they gig at the “factory” (a homage to Warhol?).

Aesthetically the characters inhabit a blue screen world that incorporates dada collage with an urban landscape that grows like the sc-fi animations of Dark City. The city literally, like our reality, is being constructed before our eyes. Clips are full of hip hop fashion codes, like the flowering city motif, old skool hip hop beats, boomboxes, free style and turntable battle scenes, snaking vine-like graf art, spray paint stencil art, bling bling, pimp action, kung-fu movies, etc.

Don’t get me wrong: this has crazy production value and is shrewdly conceived to hook young kids who should know better. It has to. That’s what makes it “sticky.”
At the final Webasode’s conclusion, the talking dog flying on a skateboard declares: “Homeboy. You can’t just go with the devil and not get burnt. It can’t be about the cash, but about the hip hop. If you don’t take control of your culture, those who only care about the gold or platinum will. The science I’m droppin’ is Instantdef.”

So what kind of science is “instantdef”? Well, Snickers, of course. The term is strangely ambiguous, yet the implication, of course, is very clear: the promise of “instantaneity” (like spontaneity). A quick fix to your “uncoolness,” Snickers gives you the hip hop power. The irony for anyone who knows anything about the roots of hip hop is that it’s a grassroots, socially proactive movement of empowerment, hardly the hallmark of Mars, Inc. who makes Snickers. But this is typical. Advertisers have a knack for draining social protest of any meaning by replacing it with pseudo acts of empowerment, such as buying candy bars. By making the viewer identify with the hip hop “underdogs” (because as consumers, that’s what we are), the robotic enemy plays on our anxiety about being consumer machines, yet asks us to become corporate apparatuses in the process. In he end, it is Snickers that is the “cosmic catatonic mind blast disrupter.”

One final point. This is an excellent example of integrated media. These days it’s not enough to be a music group, but you also have to be film actors, brand shills, superheroes, and who knows, fast food action figures? How many times can you replicate brand doppelgangers into the media sphere? Not surprisingly the ads precede the launch of Fergie, who is the current “it” girl spread across the cosmic spectrum of TV entertainment programs and newsstands (notice her physical transformation from Instantdef to her new Web presence). Though things are good for Fergie right now (I’m sure she and her management are making lots of money), the young and beautiful are highly disposable within the newness engine that constantly seeks fresh meat for its hamburger-grinding machine. People should remember that there is nothing random about fame and a pretty face: Fergie and those who come after her are merely masks of a very sophisticated PR apparatus that plays corporate media (with fully self-conscious cooperation) like the Mighty Wurlitzer (CIA parlance for running propaganda campaigns). There are fuzzy boundaries between artists, distribution channels and productions companies. On the product placement planet, brands harmonize a global manifestation of literal universes containing saints, gods and a cosmology replete with a mythology designed to convert its followers to consume addictive substances like refined sugar, caffeine, nicotine, ethanol and crude oil. The question remains whether we’ll totally convert to the new religion, or simply be aliens in a foreign world. I sincerely hope there are more options left for us to explore.

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