In the “Gamer in the Grease” episode of Bones, the team investigates the death of the only player known to achieve a perfect score on the game, Punky Pong. When I originally watched the episode, I was struck by how it portrayed fandom and exhaustively the promoted the theatrical release of Avatar. Eager fans were framed as overzealous and even called “freaks and fanatics” by one of the characters (click here for a clip). The inclusion of the subplot that consisted of characters waiting in line for Avatar tickets reeked of a poorly conceived synergy effort that would ultimately make the episode seem dated in reruns (click here for more of my thoughts on movie product placements).
The “Gamer in the Grease” episode included several topics that deserve further analysis including the heavily featured Punky Pong game, which is an example of fictionalized product displacement. The arcade game Bones examines is branded with an ape holding a paddle. Punky Pong name itself is a sort of hybrid reference to Donkey Kong and PONG. The actual purpose of the game is exactly like PONG where a player continually hits a ball back to the opponent. Originally, Punky Pong only existed in the Bones world, but in effort to give its viewers a seen-on-TV experience, Fox launched it on its site after the episode aired. A friend, and apparent Bones fan, informed me that Fox aired promos inviting viewers to visit Fox.com to play the actual game during the episode’s commercial breaks.
Fox essentially defictionalized Punky Pong and created a commodity to engage Bones viewers into the crime procedural’s world. Punky Pong also allowed fans to engage with each other by spreading the game’s link and posting their high scores. It also stimulated viewer curiosity–here, one inquires whether the game is real in which another viewer poignantly responds, “It is now. It didn’t exist before the Bones episode (Gamer in the Grease, Season 5 Episode 9) was created.”
I receive a lot of blog and Flickr hits from people searching for information regarding Alt World 2, a fictionalized Second Life-like game that was featured in a Ghost Whisperer episode. Alt World 2 was never developed into an actual game or even a fan forum, but I get the sense that viewers would welcome and even appreciate playing once fictional games. I think people enjoy the possibility of playing a game that they may already be familiar with in a new context that is established by a show they watch. I track a lot of fictionalized brands for my product displacement blog, but never see search terms regarding whether Mapple, ScienceWater or Buy More actually exist.
Perhaps because games can readily be posted online, people assume games featured on shows are real. In the case of Grand Theft Walrus, a fictionalized version of Grand Theft Auto where a walrus kills penguins, it only existed in The Simpsons world, but was then created by fans of the show. Had Fox released GTW with Rockstar Games, it would have given game the authenticity to be rendered defictionalized, but instead the GTW game available online is stuck in the realm of fan fiction.
Generally, companies do not want their products to be associated with drugs, violence and crime. Mercedes-Benz, for example, demanded any appearance of its logo be removed from Slumdog Millionaire to avoid being associated with Mumbai poverty. Danny Boyle was forced to resort to product displacement and digitally remove the logos from the film. Post-production digital pixelation and physically covering up labels are the most common methods of unbranding a scene to omit any references to trademarked brands.
The “Sweet-N-All” episode of Nurse Jackie provides a fascinating approach to product displacement because it features an establishing shot of sugar packets that instructs viewers to identify Sweet’N All as an artificial sweetener. In this shot, packets of Domino Sugar, Equal, Sweet’N Low and Sweet’N All fall on the floor as Jackie shares an intimate moment with her husband before their daughters arrive for breakfast. It’s important to note that Sweet’N Low and Sweet’N All packets were displayed together because it demonstrates that both brands exist within the Nurse Jackie world. It can even be interpreted that the two pink-packaged sweeteners are rival brands. Sweet’N All is essentially, not a fictionalized version of Sweet’N Low, but rather, it’s a separate, albeit fictional brand that was created to establish the industrious lengths Jackie goes through to fuel her addiction.
A few minutes into the episode, during a voice-over narration, Jackie, with a hint of triggered fondness states, “Sweet’N All. Sounds like Seconal. Remember Seconal?” and then goes on to tell viewers to “watch and learn” as she empties the content of a Sweet’N All packet. She then methodically crushes a mortar full of Percocet, fills three Sweet’N All packets with the drug and seals them to use throughout her workday. Jackie cautions that Percocet should not be chewed, crushed or snorted because, “it’ll hit your system like a bolt of lightning.” With a complete disregard to the forewarned dangers of Percocet, Jackie nonchalantly places the packets in her sweater pocket. Essentially, the Sweet’N All packaging is repurposed by Jackie as drug paraphernalia. The production would have certainly faced legal action if it used Sweet’N Low in such a manner.
In 2006, Goodyear teamed with Disney and Pixar to promote Cars. In the animated film, the main character, Lightening McQueen (pictured above), dons Lightyear tires and the Lightyear blimp is visible during speedway races. Goodyear’s director of marketing, Joey Viselli, has noted that the company allowed Disney/Pixar to have fun with the brand, but not with the actual brand itself, meaning Goodyear’s inclusion in the film stops short of traditional product placement. Instead, the Lightyear cameos are an example of sponsored product displacement. I’ve been tracking product displacement for a while now, and the Lightyear/Cars occurrence is the only example I’m aware of in which a brand lobbies to be parodied or fictionalized. To promote the release of the film, Goodyear tweaked its iconic Spirit of Goodyear blimp to read “Lightyear” for 15 days and offered Cars-related giveaways.