The “Black Light Attack!” episode of 30 Rock included an entertaining scene where Liz Lemon attempts to persuade the delusional Jenna to accept her age gracefully. Meryl Streep is often listed as an inspiration to many actresses and Jenna’s flattering dialogue is meant to be interpreted as referring to Streep until true to her narcissistic character, she proclaims Madonna’s name. Meryl Streep’s symbol as an acting icon, as well as her age help set up the comedic twist. Streep is currently starring in It’s Complicated with 30 Rock’s Alec Baldwin, which makes me wonder if mentioning her name was a subliminal way of promoting the NBC Universal (parent company of 30 Rock) film; after all, this wouldn’t be the first time a Meryl Streep film was promoted on the show.
Just last season, when Jack revealed to Liz that he had narrowed down his biological father to one of three men, Liz stated, “It’s a Mamma Mia.” The episode, also titled “Mamma Mia,” even followed the musical’s plot. It’s been reported that at the end of the episode, a commercial advertising the film’s DVD release aired. I’m not sure if an ad for It’s Complicated aired during the January 14 episode since the film premiered during Christmas weekend. However, since Mamma Mia was also released by NBC Universal, I don’t believe any mention of Meryl Streep is just a mere coincidence. 30 Rock has always been on the forefront of brand integrations and I think the show cleverly used Streep as a subtle references to promote NBC’s entertainment products.
I imagine Streep’s name was meant to get viewers thinking and making connections such as, “Meryl Streep’s in that movie with Jack. Who’s the actor that plays Jack? Oh, right. Alec Baldwin. She’s in that movie with Alec Baldwin. She plays a middle-aged woman that gets back together with Alec Baldwin, her ex-husband. What’s that movie called? Uh, I think It’s Complicated, that sounds right. Steve Martin is in it too. Oh, wasn’t he in an episode of 30 Rock last season? That was a good episode. I like Steve Martin. It’s Complicated sounds like a good movie. That guy Jim from The Office is in it too. I should go see that movie.” Pure genius!!
Jack Donaghy enjoys the finer things in life, so it’s no wonder he shops at Vatenné, a luxury clothing store that sells $500 neckties. Vatenné is another addition to fictional 30 Rock brands that highlight the absurdity of consumer culture and place characters into specific class brackets. In “Secret Santa,” Jack’s “blue blood” attire is a sharp contrast to his working-class Boston roots and makes for a strange juxtaposition as he tries to woo Nancy Donovan, an old crush with a piercing Southie accent. Jack’s wealth and stature suggests he’s allowed to possess a degree of vanity and self-absorption while his masculinity remains unquestioned. While, he’s an alpha male, Jack is certainly not an “average Joe,” which was evident during the “Into the Crevasse” episode where to give the impression of frugality, he has his assistant replace the Vatenné label on his tie with one from JCPenney.
In the above scene, Jack and several writers diligently work with an engineer to design a microwave that will increase GE’s revenue. The Microsoft Windows logo is visible on the engineer’s laptop, which is unusual considering that the majority of Windows-based computers are branded with the manufacturer’s logo (i.e. Dell, HP). Even more unusual is that 30 Rock frequently features Apple products–both Jack and Liz use Apple computers. In the past, the show has even disclosed Apple as a promotional sponsor in its credits. Naturally, the Windows occurrence has invited speculation as to whether or not it was a paid-for placement.
The episode in question, “Into the Crevasse,” aired on October 22nd, which is also when Microsoft’s new operating system, Windows 7, was released. The laptop placement is not merely a coincidence as Microsoft has announced an extensive integration deal with Fox’s Family Guy. Before pulling out of sponsoring a commercial-free airing of the raunchy animated series, Microsoft praised the “subversive and unique humor” of Family Guy. Microsoft was obviously open to experimenting with its brand integration so it’s certainly plausible to believe that the company approached 30 Rock with a sponsorship offer.
Even though the Microsoft-branded laptop is a fictional product, it promotes the company and serves to remind viewers of Windows 7. In that sense, it’s a typical product placement, but I believe Tina Fey and the other geniuses over at 30 Rock cleverly included subtle commentary that portrays Windows in a negative way. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the Windows laptop was used by the engineer to create a mockup of microwave that had the potential to save GE from financial ruin. Instead, the engineer, following the suggestions of Jack and the writers, designs a Pontiac Aztek, which has been credited as being one of General Motors’ biggest mistakes. As the Aztek appears on the screen of the Windows laptop, I can’t help, but feel that the presentation of a notably failed product, implicitly highlights Microsoft’s shortcomings. Ultimately Jack’s pursuit of creating an innovative microwave was a failure and that failure was executed on a Windows-based laptop. Jack’s failure can even be associated with that Windows laptop. The writer’s, who are normally inundated with ideas, are only able to offer Jack and the engineer half-brained suggestions.
This episode, hardly featured any Apple products — I actually, only spotted one Apple occurrence. Apple computers, which are associated with creativity, were lacking as were innovative suggestions to solve GE problem. Sure, I realize this whole plot point was meant to poke fun at GM, but it critiqued Microsoft as well.
In “Product Displacements as Catalysts to Engagement,” I assert that fictionalized displacements can generate better recall and purchase intent than even the most thoroughly planned brand integration strategies. I like to think of product placements as a form of hybrid advertising that situates itself within narrative content, but does not directly identify its paid-for sponsorship of a program. A key factor of product placement is integration, which is usually intended to occur as seamlessly as possible. The majority of casual television viewers are not conditioned to watch out for brand integrations and as the number of placements increase, these carefully placed products just contribute to the clutter of an already ad-saturated environment. Of course, there are brands capable of successfully integrating products into shows in clever, stylistic ways that increase recollection and engagement. However, most brand integrations risk alienating viewers, especially as audiences become defensive against constantly being marketed to.
What makes fictionalized product placements so conducive to positive and memorable engagement is perhaps their utilization of tongue-in-cheek humor of parody and satire. The real brands portrayed in displacements, specifically fictionalized ones, are usually iconic and commonly known. Fictionalized displacements are created using similar phrasing, slogans and visual identifiers as their real world counterparts. While fictionalized displacements typically mimic the most identifiable characteristics of real brands, there is always something “off” about them. Even if a product displacement is not a parody and only functions as a fictionalized stand-in, viewers are able to sense and even identify “off” content. Viewers are required to actively analyze and decode meanings of a product displacement. In a way, viewers interact with fictionalized product displacements more so than standard brand integrations because they are required to connect their cultural knowledge to media messages presented.
Parody and its cultural references are usually common knowledge. As Jonathan Gray states, “Parody’s only prerequisite is a limited degree of textual and genre awareness,” however, recognizing the parodical nature of product displacements makes viewers feel media savvy. Once they notice a fictionalized displacement and can identify the actual brand it’s meant to portray, audiences are inclined to believe they are in on a joke and not susceptible to the lure of marketers (Gray 235). Most fictionalized displacements are mildly amusing and give the impression of critiquing the portrayed brand. An episode of The Simpsons titled “Mypods and Broomsticks,” which featured a company called Mapple, (an Apple stand-in) mocked the computer giant’s products, advertising, corporate culture and CEO. After losing an angry mob of Mapple employees seeking revenge, Bart Simpson, who made fun of the company’s pricing and sheep-like followers/customers, states he was chased for shining, “…a harsh light on modern society.”
Although Apple would not agree to be portrayed so negatively, Apple, as well as other companies, stand to benefit from satirical mocking. Fictionalized product displacements represent distorted mirrors of national life and cultural identity. I have encountered the majority of these displacements in sitcoms, which presents a great opportunity for adventurous brands to experiment with their identity and be parodied. In sum, “jokes make us laugh, many viewers are likely to seek out parody, and few of [them] are likely to feel imposed upon in the way [they] might react to more overtly didactic messages” (Gray 234). While recognizing and identifying a fictionalized product displacement requires prior knowledge of cultural meanings, advertisers can use parody and satire to “re-encode” those meanings (Gray 231).
Gray, Jonathan. “Television Teaching: Parody, The Simpsons, and Media Literacy
Education.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. Vol. 22, No. 3, August
2005, pp. 223/238