Monentum: 'FRIENDS' MAY BE OUR ENEMY
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Selling out used to be something to be ashamed of. No= w, if you don't sell out, it just means that no one wants to buy what you h= ave.
The sad fact is that we live in a society where everything -- from tooth= paste to the president of the United States -- is for sale. Nothing is fre= e. We live in a culture that has no heart, only an open pocketbook and an o= utstretched hand.
Advertising has invaded our schools, our streets, our clothing, and even= our elevators. Can it get any worse?
Of course. Although we can expect= no honor among thieves, television and itsviewers used to have an up-front= contract. We got entertainment, and, in exchange, we had to watch a series= of commercial pitches.
The ads may have been irritating, but at least the cards were on the tab= le, and we could always run to the kitchen or bathroom if we weren'tinteres= ted in buying a new car, a sugary breakfast cereal, a vaginal doucheor a we= ight loss pill with embarrassing side effects.
Technology -- specifically= , the remote control -- put a dent in thedeal. With a wave of a wand we cou= ld watch two or three shows at once andskip the commercials entirely. And i= f we recorded our favorite shows on aVCR, we could fast-forward and never s= ee an annoying commercial again.
This fact was not lost on advertisers, b= ut for the moment, there seemed to be little they could do except to try an= d make the commercialsmore compelling.
However, the newest technology -- the digital video recorders like TiVo = and Replay/TV -- has blown the contract apart forever.
Essentially, these= recorders are hard drives that attach to your television and record everyt= hing that plays. If you want to leave the roomin the middle of a "Friends"= segment, the box will continue to record the show. When you come back, you= can pick up where you left off in real time.
And you can again fast forward through the commercials.
But a deal is a deal, and television isn't free.
Advertisers went on the warpath, trying to find new ways to get ouratten= tion. The first thing they came up with was "product placement."
For exa= mple, your favorite sitcom characters drink some soda. Youclearly see the = brand. It's never mentioned, but subliminally you notethat Monica and Chan= dler drink Coke.
So if Monica and Chandler are the kind of hip people who= you'd liketo be like, you might buy Coke over Pepsi the next time you're a= t thesupermarket.
Once sponsors found that they could get away with product placement(whic= h is now a full-scale epidemic in films), they searched for otherways.
On= ce, in an unspeakable violation of the television contract, theyturned an e= ntire show into a commercial.
It was the episode of "Friends" where Rachel moved in with Phoebe-- who = is the kind of person who likes her furnishings to have characterand histor= y.
Rachel started buying things from Pottery Barn, which sells designsthat = are made to look like the things you used to be able to find in flea market= s. To explain where the furniture came from, Rachel invented thrift-shop an= d antique-store sprees that never happened.
Phoebe figured out where the furniture is coming from (by walking past a= Pottery Barn window, if I remember correctly), and the two friends reconci= le. But not before the entire Pottery Barn catalog has flashed across your = television screen, and the store's name has been mentioned so many times th= at you want to scream.
The episode was distasteful, but it seemed like an isolated eventuntil I= read a story by Jim Edwards in the March issue of Brill's Contentabout how= advertisers are now banding together to make their own televisionshows, mo= stly to eliminate sexual content during early prime time.
What upsets the= m, actually, is "Friends." The advertisers, whichinclude Johnson & Johnson,= Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Co.,are bothered by plot lines = such as Monica and Rachel fighting over a lastcondom, or Phoebe being mista= ken for her porn star sister.
Edwards told about a wholesome program called "Young Americans,"which ra= n on the WB cable channel last summer.
"Young Americans" was developed wi= th Coca Cola money, and the showwas promoted as a "Coca Cola Summer Premier= e." Coke products were woven --in not too subtle a fashion -- into the sto= ries.
The show bombed. Variety sneered, "We interrupt our sponsors for aword f= rom this program."
So did the advertisers learn to leave the creative work to thecreative p= eople?
"The experience proved satisfying," Edwards wrote. "(It) providedexperi= ence in advertiser-backed script development and lessons about justhow heav= y-handed one could be in terms of product placement. Rather thantaking it = as evidence that such experiments don't work, (the advertisers)saw it as so= mething that could be fine-tuned to work on an even largerscale."
Then, the other night, I saw the most startling thing at ane-commerce ga= thering.
Not so coincidentally, it was based on "Friends." As a scene between Ro= ss and Rachel played on a large computer screen, the lecturer moved his mou= se over the picture.
When he clicked his arrow on Rachel's wrist, a picture of her watch appe= ared in a corner box, highlighting the brand name and price.
It was as if= she had suddenly jumped channels and was on the Home Shopping Network.
Click on her dress and the same thing happened. Click on Ross'sshirt, an= d it was the same.
The technology is called Watchpoints, and it's a spin-off ofsomething de= veloped at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MediaLab. It's not i= n play yet, but the operative word is "yet."
It could soon be in our home= s. Maybe we could even click on Rachel and find out how much it costs to be= d her for the night. Shipping and handling extra, of course.
All of this makes me very grateful for HBO, which has invented adifferen= t paradigm -- we pay up front and there are no commercials. (Exceptfor HBO = shows, of course.)
Be warned. The long-running contract between viewers and advertisers has= been permanently broken. Now, it's a war, and your mind is the battlefield= .
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who writes about culture,politics= , economics and travel.