by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
April 5, 2001
'FRIENDS' MAY BE OUR ENEMY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Selling out used to be something to be ashamed of. Now, if you don't sell out, it just means that no one wants to buy what you have.
The sad fact is that we live in a society where everything - from toothpaste to the President of the United States -- is for sale. Nothing is free. We live in a culture that has no heart, only an open pocketbook and an outstretched 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 table, and we could always run to the kitchen or bathroom if we weren't interested in buying a new car, a sugary breakfast cereal, a vaginal douche or a weight loss pill with embarrassing side effects. Technology -- specifically, the remote control -- put a dent in thedeal. With a wave of a wand we could watch two or three shows at once and skip the commercials entirely. And if we recorded our favorite shows on a VCR, we could fast-forward and never see an annoying commercial again.
This fact was not lost on advertisers, but for the moment, there seemed to be little they could do except to try and make the commercials more 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 everything 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 our attention. The first thing they came up with was "product placement." For example, your favorite sitcom characters drink some soda. You clearly see the brand. It's never mentioned, but subliminally you note that Monica and Chandler 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 at the supermarket.
Once sponsors found that they could get away with product placement (which is now a full-scale epidemic in films), they searched for otherways.
Once, in an unspeakable violation of the television contract, they turned an entire 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 history.
Rachel started buying things from Pottery Barn, which sells designs that are made to look like the things you used to be able to find in flea markets. To explain where the furniture came from, Rachel invented thrift-shop and 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 reconcile. 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 that you want to scream.
The episode was distasteful, but it seemed like an isolated event until I read a story by Jim Edwards in the March issue of Brill's Content about how advertisers are now banding together to make their own television shows, mostly to eliminate sexual content during early prime time.
What upsets them, actually, is "Friends." The advertisers, which include Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and Ford Motor Co., are bothered by plot lines such as Monica and Rachel fighting over a last condom, or Phoebe being mistaken for her porn-star sister.
Edwards told about a wholesome program called "Young Americans,"which ran on the WB cable channel last summer.
"Young Americans" was developed with Coca Cola money, and the showwas promoted as a "Coca Cola Summer Premiere." Coke products were woven --in not too subtle a fashion -- into the stories.
The show bombed. Variety sneered, "We interrupt our sponsors for a word from this program."
So did the advertisers learn to leave the creative work to the creative people?
"The experience proved satisfying," Edwards wrote. "(It) provided experience in advertiser-backed script development and lessons about just how heavy-handed one could be in terms of product placement. Rather than taking it as evidence that such experiments don't work, (the advertisers)saw it as something that could be fine-tuned to work on an even larger scale."
Then, the other night, I saw the most startling thing at ane-commerce gathering.
Not so coincidentally, it was based on "Friends." As a scene between Ross and Rachel played on a large computer screen, the lecturer moved his mouse over the picture.
When he clicked his arrow on Rachel's wrist, a picture of her watch appeared 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's shirt, and it was the same.
The technology is called Watchpoints, and it's a spin-off of something developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's MediaLab. It's not in play yet, but the operative word is "yet." It could soon be in our homes. Maybe we could even click on Rachel and find out how much it costs to bed her for the night. Shipping and handling extra, of course.
All of this makes me very grateful for HBO, which has invented a different paradigm -- we pay up front and there are no commercials. (Except for 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.