Shark Tank and the American Dream
Chad Newsom / Savannah College of Art and Design

Shark Tank
ABC’s Shark Tank
On ABC’s Shark Tank, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their products and business plans to a group of potential investors referred to as “sharks,” multi-millionaires (and a billionaire) including Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary (aka “Mr. Wonderful”), Barbara Corcoran, Robert Herjavec, Lori Greiner, and Mark Cuban. On a recent episode (season 6, episode 21), a married couple presents a pillow designed to make it easier to feed twin babies. Both the wife and her husband lost their jobs in pharmaceutical sales and temporarily had no car or even a phone. The husband took a job washing cars for a friend’s business, and they both put their efforts into patenting and selling the pillow the wife had invented. As they tell their story, Mark Cuban interrupts, “Good for you because there’s going to be people watching at home, that are in similar circumstances, thinking, ‘If I only knew somebody, if I only had capital available.’ You didn’t know anybody, and you put it all on the line, and you went for it. That’s the American dream, and that’s exactly why we do this show.” Or as he told another couple on season six’s first episode, “You guys are the American dream come true. Because everybody out there now knows that your back can be against the wall, you can suffer personal tragedy, and with $700, you can be standing right [here] ….” Over the course of six seasons at https://grademiners.com/dissertation-chapters, the show has featured entrepreneurs with a variety of backstories, but Cuban’s statements reveal Shark Tank’s favorite narrative: people who experience personal setbacks, start over with next to nothing, remain focused and driven, do whatever it takes to succeed (selling door-to-door, for example, always gets an enthusiastic response from Cuban), and now just need the help (money, connections, advice) of an investor to reach the next level. And as Cuban’s remarks suggest, this narrative has a pedagogic function: these stories model how to achieve success.

When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all they way
 

The “Sharks”
The show openly and frequently promotes the American dream of success, but doing so reveals a tension and contradiction at the heart of the dream: your hard work will take you only so far, and you still need the help of someone wealthier and better connected than you. In one sense, Cuban accurately describes the American dream: money and connections don’t matter if you do not possess initiative and ambition. But personal drive is not enough. If Cuban’s statement were wholly true, there would be no Shark Tank; the show exists to provide networking and capital—to provide those necessary ingredients once the self-made, self-driven approach reaches its limit. Take the inventor of “Funbites,” for example, who created a device to cut food into shapes for kids (season 6, episode 18). When Robert Herjavec asks why she’s there in the Tank, she replies, “I have taken this company as far as I can go as one person. I work 24/7. I’m the hardest worker. … I know how to sell my product, but I need your help.” And by “help,” she means access to large retail chains and companies like Disney. (( This particular segment also points out an aspect of the show that’s consistently downplayed. For all its talk of the American dream, the chances of actually appearing research paper on the program put the show on par with any standard reality competition. Tens of thousands of people apply each season, but only a handful makes it on to the show. The “Funbites” inventor tried for three years to get on; when she mentions this fact, Mr. Wonderful shouts, “You made it!” and everyone shares a laugh, a laugh that glosses over the sheer luck involved in being selected to appear on the show. )) Here we see the American dream’s dilemma: you can do everything right (“I work 24/7”) and only achieve limited success. (( Many of the show’s entrepreneurs have already found great financial success, but they are still there because that success is not enough. )) Something (or someone) else is needed.

In this way, each episode stages a Horatio Alger story—and not the Alger myth most people know. In popular culture, a “Horatio Alger story” connotes the idea that diligence and hard work pay off. But that version is a misreading of Alger’s original stories: in novels like Ragged Dick, diligence and hard work take you only so far—until a wealthy benefactor intervenes. In Ragged Dick, the eponymous protagonist transitions from an illiterate bootblack who squanders his money to a “’spectable” young man with a basic education and a savings account. Alger comments, “His street education had sharpened his faculties, and taught him to rely upon himself. He knew that it would take him a long time to reach the goal which he had set before him, and he had patience to keep trying. He knew that he had only himself to depend upon, and he determined to make the most of himself—a resolution which is the secret of success in nine cases out of ten.” (( Horatio Alger, Jr. Ragged Dick. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008), 86. Note, as well, the didactic tone that Alger’s novel shares with Shark Tank; repeatedly, Alger emphasizes that Dick’s story is meant to teach others how to be successful. )) But despite his best efforts and meager success, Dick remains a bootblack until the last few pages of the novel. While riding a ferry, Dick saves a young boy who falls into the water, a child who happens to be the son of a wealthy businessman. The man repays Dick with a job as a clerk in his counting-room and a salary higher than he could imagine. His own efforts paid off in the sense that learning to read and write dissertation help put him in the position where he could take a job as a clerk; but he still depended upon a fortuitous encounter to realize his dream. That part of the Alger story has been overlooked because it interferes with the more heroic “self-made man” scenario. Like Shark Tank, Alger’s stories are paeans to self-reliance, but both reveal the limits of that myth.

Horatio Alger cover
 

A typical Horatio Alger cover
With its Horatio Alger narrative, Shark Tank harkens back to a pre-20th century version of the American dream, in which “one could realize the fruits of one’s aspirations through applied intelligence and effort,” self-motivation, and discipline. (( Jim Cullen, The American Dream (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 168-9. )) This version remains popular today because it’s been so deeply enshrined in American thought and culture for centuries, dating back to Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and even the Puritans. A new version of the dream, however, arose in the mid-19th century and eventually found its exemplar and flourished in Hollywood. Jim Cullen refers to this version as the “dream of the coast”—the California coast—and discovers its origins in the California gold rush (“Transformative riches were literally at your feet”) and in Hollywood, where personality and leisure replace character and hard work, and being famous is an end in itself. (( Cullen, 170, 176, 177. )) Unlike Shark Tank, most contemporary reality shows emphasize this newer, Hollywood version of the American dream and its emphasis on personality or chance. For example, shows like The Real World and Big Brother exist to showcase personality; as viewers, we already know what will happen when incompatible people are placed in a cloistered living situation. Personality (and the crafting of a persona) matters as well on talent competitions, such as American Idol or The Voice, where a genuinely gifted and hard-working contestant may win, but true celebrity status remains elusive. Other shows rely on gold-rush style luck: maybe this storage locker will contain unimaginable treasures (Storage Wars), or perhaps some belonging, or even the junk in my garage, has value I didn’t realize (Pawn Stars, American Pickers). Or worse—there’s a combination of personality, luck, and delusion: maybe I’ll be the one who gets the final rose (The Bachelor/Bachelorette).

While Shark Tank relies upon a different version of the American dream than these shows do, it still does not completely escape typical reality show pitfalls. The producers do sometimes select contestants for reasons of personality over product, but after all, sales requires a degree of showmanship. Also, some contestants do not expect a deal, but merely want the TV exposure that will instantly boost revenue. Yet rarely does the show feature train-wreck contestants—reality show contestants selected precisely to fail. For example, the most bizarre pitch I’ve seen was the man who proposed to surgically implant a bluetooth device behind the ear. (It’s not surprising that this segment appeared on season one’s first episode, hence the need to attract an audience). But such standard reality show techniques do not occur often. There’s tough competition to even appear on the show in the first place, and it would greatly undercut the show’s appeal if it allowed too many “undeserving” contestants with no shot of a deal. Sometimes, however, those people do walk away successful: no deal seemed less likely than the one involving a company called “I Want to Draw a Cat for You,” a business where one man draws custom stick-figure cats upon request—but Mark Cuban invested. (( At the time of this article’s publication, 18,794 cats have been drawn. http://iwanttodrawacatforyou.com/ ))

I Want To Draw A Cat For You
Shark Tank is still reality television, as manufactured as any other program, but I would argue that its emphasis on the “old school” version of the American dream accounts for its success, and if for no other reason, that strategy certainly helps differentiate the show from others. The show consistently achieves some of network television’s highest ratings in the 18-49 category for Friday night, a difficult time slot. (( http://www.thewrap.com/how-shark-tank-went-from-deathslot-friday-to-franchise/ )) Viewers tune in to see the American dream of success played out, week after week—a myth, no doubt, but like all enduring myths, neither wholly true nor false. (( Cullen, 7. ))

Image Credits:
1. Shark Tank logo
2. The “Sharks”
3. Cover of Strive and Succeed

Please feel free to comment.




The Prima(u)teur
Chad Newsom / Savannah College of Art and Design

A capuchin monkey directing its first movie

A capuchin monkey directing its first movie

I recently taught a class on film authorship in which we read the history of auteurism chronologically. Near the course’s beginning, we discussed Andrew Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” I’ve read the essay so many times that now I increasingly focus on minor, inconsequential points when reading, usually ones that humor me. This time, I paid attention to one particular statement and question: “An expert production crew could probably cover up for a chimpanzee in the director’s chair. How do you tell the genuine director from the quasichimpanzee? After a given number of films, a pattern is established.” (( Andrew Sarris, “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962,” in Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader, ed. Barry Keith Grant. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 44. )) During this particular reading, this quote brought two unrelated images to mind, which I haven’t stopped thinking about since: one from a news story popular in summer 2014, the other from one of my favorite Buster Keaton films. I have no intention (or the space) of developing some full-fledged theory of primates and authorship, but I do want to think about these two images in relation to Sarris’s basic point: that at least in single instances, the nature of the cinematic apparatus could indeed allow an unskilled monkey or ape to produce art indistinguishable from a human-made work. As my class continued, a clear trajectory emerged in our readings: the earliest texts enthroned the director as auteur, the next period elevated other figures to the level of authorship (screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, etc.), and finally, scholars began to question the very notion of authorship itself—its meaning, to whom the term can apply, etc. Overall, one notices a path from certainty (the director is the auteur) to vagueness (what, exactly, is authorship?) For me, the two images studied here provide emblems for the haziness of ideas about what counts as art, creativity, and authorship.

Buster Keaton's The Cameraman

The Monkey Cinematographer

In The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1928), Buster Keaton sells tintype photographs on the street, but longs to be an MGM newsreel photographer in order to impress his love interest, Sally, who works in the newsreel office. He manages to purchase a newsreel camera, but continually fails to operate it properly. His luck improves, however, when he acquires a monkey sidekick, who assists him while filming. At the film’s climax, Buster has set up his camera to film a regatta, which includes a boat containing Sally and Buster’s romantic rival. During a sharp turn, Sally is thrown from the boat; her companion swims to shore, leaving Sally to drown, but Buster’s quick to the rescue. He brings her to shore, and then immediately darts off to the drugstore to get medical supplies since she’s unconscious. While Buster’s away, she awakens in the arms of the coward who abandoned her and praises him as her savior. Buster returns just in time to see them leaving together, arm-in-arm. Defeated, he drops the supplies and falls to his knees on the beach. As he does so, the camera tracks back and to the right, revealing the monkey cranking the newsreel camera: he’s recorded not just the emotional drama that will earn Buster his coveted job, but the truth that will help win Sally’s heart.

Macaque Selfie

The Monkey Selfie

In 2011, British photographer David Slater traveled to Indonesia to photograph macaque monkeys. One of the monkeys took hold of the camera and began taking selfies. Slater described the situation in The Telegraph: “They were quite mischievous jumping all over my equipment, and it looked like they were already posing for the camera when one hit the button. The sound got his attention and he kept pressing it.” (( Matthew Sparkes, “Wikipedia refuses to delete photo as ‘monkey owns it,’” The Telegraph, last modified August 6, 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/11015672/Wikipedia-refuses-to-delete-photo-as-monkey-owns-it.html. )) These images and this story went viral again in summer 2014 due to Slater’s legal battle with Wikimedia Commons, who posted the images in its public domain collection. (( Ibid. )) Slater wants compensation, but the Wikimedia Foundation finds itself legally in the right: whoever takes a photo owns the photo. A monkey took the photo, so nobody owns it. (( Jay Caspian Kang, “Wikipedia Defends the Monkey Selfie,” The New Yorker, last modified August 8, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/monkey-see-monkey-click. )) The case for this particular monkey’s authorship status (but not copyright) is unusually strong, one copyright expert argues, because the macaque didn’t just press a button, but held, aimed, and operated the camera—often resulting in striking poses and compositions. (( Jordan Weissmann, “If a Monkey Takes a Selfie, Who Owns the Copyright?” Slate, last modified August 6, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/08/06/monkey_selfie_who_owns_the_copyright.html. )) In fact, I find it hard not to anthropomorphize these images; although some were blurry, the best ones seem to reveal personality, spontaneity, and pleasure—uncanny, nearly human, qualities.

In addition to these stories, I could include others: from the monkey in Bali who stole a tourist’s GoPro camera and filmed itself, (( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woeT8ZEpbjc )) to Oedipe (2009), the first film directed by a monkey. (( See the film, or read an article about a making-of documentary )) If we move from photography to painting, the number of monkeys and apes engaged in creative activity increases even more. What’s unique about the film and photography examples shot by monkeys, however, is that they make literal André Bazin’s statement about photography’s (and hence, cinematography’s) automatism: “Photography completely satisfies our appetite for illusion by means of a process of mechanical reproduction in which there is no human agency at work. … For the first time, an image of the outside world takes shape automatically, without creative human intervention ….” (( André Bazin, What is Cinema? trans. Timothy Barnard (Montreal: Caboose Books, 2009), 6-7. ))

Nieto, director of Oepide

Nieto, director of Oedipe

At the same time, this automatism points to the long-standing respectability crisis that haunts authorship in the photographic arts: sophisticated technological advancement allows anyone to easily operate a film camera (whether cranking, clicking, or today, tapping). In other arts, this situation differs. In painting, primates cannot produce realistic compositions, but can create abstract works, long providing a favorite debunking tool for those who find modern art fraudulent. In literature, the infinite monkey theorem applies: a monkey typing away at a computer for an infinite amount of time would eventually produce something legible—even reproduce Shakespeare’s works. But with film and photography, anyone or anything (monkey, ape, human) can indeed press a button and create a realistic image or, potentially, aesthetic beauty (as with the monkey selfie). Historically, many have thought that the camera’s automatism demotes photography as an art; real art, the argument goes, should require more skill than merely replicating reality. For this reason, early film theorists, such as Rudolf Arnheim and Sergei Eisenstein, viewed film as art precisely to the extent that it did more than duplicate the real world; for them, “film as art depends on the creative intervention of an artist” and not merely reliance upon cinema’s recording function. (( Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener, Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses (New York: Routledge, 2010), 22. )) In the 1930s, Arnheim summed up the viewpoint that many people held: “‘Film cannot be art, for it does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically.’” (( V.F. Perkins, Film as Film (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1993), 9. ))

Statements like this one, V.F. Perkins remarks, led filmmakers from the 1920s on to overemphasize cinema’s expressive capacities and to see “the creative essence of the cinema [as] difference-from-reality… Because ‘art only begins where mechanical reproduction leaves off,’ [filmmakers and theorists] put a premium on the blatancy of the departure; the greater the difference, the more manifest the Art.” (( Ibid., 14. )) Yet we must not forget that “the camera is primarily a recording instrument. It does not always add significantly to what it records, but its ability to select, mould, heighten, or comment upon events is a consequence of its ability to record them.” (( Ibid., 24. )) Both images above highlight the camera’s recording function, a property so fundamental and basic that, yes, even a monkey or ape could do it. For Sarris, in fact, a chimp might achieve one-hit-wonder status due to film’s collaborative nature, but lacks the ability to develop a personal style. Yet while a monkey typing away might one day reproduce the words of Hamlet (where style is embedded in words and syntax), a monkey operating a film camera could never remake Vertigo (where style involves the complex coordination of myriad factors, including time); mechanical reproduction is one thing, but film style—as Sarris’s opening quote makes clear—is another.

Monkeyshines No. 2

Monkeyshines No. 2

This still comes from the very first motion picture experiments shot in the United States, images filmed by W.K.L Dickson for the Thomas Edison Company in either 1889 or 1890. It’s significant—and appropriate—that these short films were called “Monkeyshines.” The term captures the playful quality of the “cinema of attractions,” cinema’s earliest era in which avant-garde trickery, documentary realism, and even rudimentary narratives mix and match in any given film. The term also fits the content of these film experiments: a man, quite literally, monkeys around: he twirls and waves his arms, bends side to side, and then lifts his hat up. Although the quality has greatly deteriorated, the man’s exaggerated gestures allow the images to register with (slight) clarity and to call for our attention across some 125 years.

Monkeyshines, No. 1 and No. 2

Image Credits:
1. A capuchin monkey directing its first film.
2. The monkey cinematographer.
3. The monkey selfie.
4. Nieto, director of Oedipe
5. Monkeyshines No. 2.

Please feel free to comment.




This Article is Brought to You By …
Chad Newsom / Savannah College of Art and Design

Morgan Spurlock

Morgan Spurlock in a promotion image for The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

We already know the standard pro and con arguments for product placement: brands fill our lives, advertisers say, so it makes films more realistic when they feature those brands as well. But no, detractors argue, product placement only disrupts, stopping a narrative dead in its tracks when it appears. (( Or conversely, the real distraction occurs when you see some real-world product with a fake brand name in a film, which produces a double distraction: you’re aware not only of the object, but an intentionally rebranded object. )) The pro/con discussion varies with usage and depends upon individual cases, so I don’t intend to argue for or against product placement. Plus, I think most viewers can distinguish between realistic, unobtrusive placement and shameless cynicism: between a character simply drinking a Diet Coke and the banality of a sitcom produced by and set at Subway restaurants.

Subway's The 4 to 9ers

Subway’s original series, The 4 to 9ers

Instead, I want to move away from evaluating product placement as good or bad, realistic or distracting, and clarify what I experience when I see this practice employed: such advertising serves as an unwelcome reminder that so much of the entertainment that meaningfully fills our time, memories, and lives is made for profit. It’s not that we’re naïve enough to believe the opposite: we know that Hollywood filmmaking is a profit-generating business governed by economic decision-making, but we prefer that fact to remain hidden. Consider a related phenomenon: native advertising on the internet. We know that websites, like television and radio, are ad-supported, but we balk when we see web content labeled “paid post” or “sponsored content,” when we know, for sure, that advertisers directly produce content or make creative decisions. Furthermore, if we oppose such web ads, how much more strongly we respond when ads invade the news (which, we hope, is as objective as possible) or the dream world of cinema.

John Oliver discusses native advertising on Last Week Tonight

The better a movie is (whatever one’s criteria), the less we like to think of it as a commodity rather than a work of art; when we love or admire a film, we form a connection with it—aesthetic, intellectual, emotional—and to speak of the film as an industrial product seems to cheapen it. Yet product placement bluntly signals film’s commodified nature: it exposes the side of cinema that most films conceal. (( For a counterexample, see the opening of Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1972) where the viewer sees checks being signed to pay for the film’s production. )) The branded products made out of films (merchandising) or seen within them draw attention to the disposable, consumerist junk of capitalism: sodas, cars, toys, shirts, fast food, housewares, etc. Yet merchandising and product placement rarely surprise us in tentpole films, contemporary Hollywood’s most unabashedly commercial form. After all, what else can you expect of films produced by Hasbro or Lego—or Disney? We’re then quick to make distinctions between Hollywood’s most commercial products and movies that matter as art—an idealistic distinction that, however false, we often make.

It’s convenient to fall into the same trap that early auteurist critics of the 1950s and 60s did: to view canonical films and filmmakers as outside history and to locate filmic value in the individual creator (director). And there’s a definite allure to such thinking: the idea of a great work, universal and ahistorical, surviving the test of time. That’s why the early auteur critics, eager to establish cinema as an art form on par with literature, painting, or theatre, insisted on the separation—the transcendence—of auteurs from socio-historical context. As Graham Petrie explains, “By distilling something called ‘personal vision’ from a film, and marketing this as the ‘essence’ of its success, it was hoped to evade all the sordid and tedious details of power conflicts and financial interests that are an integral part of any major movie project.” (( Graham Petrie, “Alternatives to Auteurs.” In Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader, ed. Barry Keith Grant, 110-118. (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 110. )) Such details, of course, are largely hidden from us unless we go in search of them. We can enjoy a film without knowing the myriad decisions that go into each shot or the financial constraints that affect what we see onscreen. A forward-moving narrative, engaging characters, and a credible diegetic world help efface, or at least postpone, such thinking about how the film is actually constructed, let alone how large a role economic incentives govern aesthetic decisions.

Yet the history of American cinema is the history of this balance between art and commerce, and it’s generally acknowledged that the scales have tipped toward commerce more and more since the heyday of 1980s conglomeration and synergy. (( Justin Wyatt, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994), 202. )) Watch enough contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, and you soon find yourself channeling Norma Desmond: They took the idols and smashed them, the Hitchcocks, the Cukors, the Capras! And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies!

But not so fast: it’s easy to posit a mythical past, a golden age when the movies themselves mattered. That’s why it’s startling to learn about movie marketing techniques of Hollywood’s classical era in the 1930s and 1940s. Just like today, classical Hollywood used merchandising and product placement. The former method, what Charles Eckert calls “showcasing,” involved creating products—like dresses and cosmetics—based on the film, which would then debut simultaneously. The latter method, known as a “tie-up,” placed branded products in films and often included magazine and show-window displays as well. (( Charles Eckert, “The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window,” in Movies and Mass Culture, ed. John Belton, 95-118. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 101. ))

Such marketing was often part of ballyhoo campaigns, which promoted films in ways that make today’s advertising seem lackluster by comparison. Here’s an example that sounds bizarre, but is quite typical: Fay Wray was the star of Universal’s 1934 film The Countess of Monte Cristo, and a dress she wears as the Countess was designed for sale in Macy’s Cinema Fashion Shop. To promote the movie’s premiere and the dress, Macy’s put out a radio announcement that the Countess herself would visit the store. A police presence was needed because so many people gathered, many present only because they heard rumors about a countess. The moment arrives: Fay Wray pulls up in a Pierce Silver-Arrow car (another co-promotion), steps out, walks to the Cinema Fashion Shop, and then asks to see the dress she read about in the newspaper that morning: The Countess of Monte Cristo dress. At that point, some realize it’s all a publicity stunt. Wray tries on the dress and then poses for photographs, which soon become the subject of new advertisements, news articles, and even a Macy’s press release. (( “Roxy Gives ‘Countess of Monte Cristo’ Fine New York Send-Off,” Universal Weekly (April 7, 1934), 31, http://www.archive.org/stream/universal2438univ#page/n1731/mode/2up. )) Marketers had a clear goal for such ad campaigns: to prime audience members (especially females) before they watched a movie so that they would recognize certain objects onscreen and immediately know where they could purchase those dream-world accoutrements. And it worked: by the late 1930s, over 1800 shops carried star-endorsed clothing lines. (( Eckert, 103. ))

Product placement and merchandising, then and now, wouldn’t exist were they not effective. For example, jump to 1983, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer sees patrons leave a screening of Flashdance, walk across the street to buy the soundtrack album, and head back to the theater to watch the movie again, thus closing the loop. (( Watch Bruckheimer’s anecdote on the special feature “Releasing the Flashdance Phenomenon” on the film’s DVD release: Flashdance, DVD, directed by Adrian Lyne (1983; Hollywood, CA: Paramount Home Entertainment, 2010). )) Fast-forward to 2014, and the Dunkin Donuts cups, Dreyer’s ice cream, Sony electronics, or Volvo SUV you see in Gone Girl should, in theory, prompt you to purchase such items. In fact, there’s no real difference between this Macy’s ad from 1934 and this Volvo tweet from 2014:

Fay Wray

Gone Girl tweet

Macy’s Fay Wray Cinema Fashions ad (1934), Volvo’s Gone Girl tweet (2014)

This comparison gets at what’s key here: when you combine the power, allure, and suggestiveness of the cinematic image with consumer products, the resulting effect is provocative in a way that a simple television commercial, magazine advertisement, or web ad could never be. (( Eckert, 117. ))

My initial qualm about what product placement and merchandising do to the movies is perhaps misplaced; the real perniciousness of advertising, then, becomes not what it does to our media, but what it does to the spectator. Advertising shapes the movies that, in turn, shape us. On screen, we may notice individual branded products, but not realize marketing’s pervasive influence. As Eckert suggests in his essay on marketing, the very glamour we associate with classical Hollywood—luxurious settings, elegant clothing, gauzy close-ups, top-of-the-line furnishings, etc.—was manufactured by ingenious publicity departments and salespeople. (( Eckert, 102, 116. )) And if that’s the case in the 1930s, today’s situation is enormously magnified: now that traditional market research has combined with big data, corporations have enough information about our lives, our past purchases, and desires (in fact, at least 1500 “data points” per person (( Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble (New York: Penguin, 2011), 43. )) ) that they know us better than we know ourselves—and thus have the ability to craft works that appeal to what they already know we want. (( This fact act helps explain why ratio of needs to wants has reversed dramatically since the 1930s. Today, “the bulk of household expenditure, even by the poor, is on items that are not necessary in any strictly material sense, but which confer status.” See Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (New York: Other Press, 2013), 37. )) Or as Google’s CEO puts it, it will soon be “very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored to them.” (( Pariser, 47. ))

Although I have focused here on advertising and movies, much of what I say applies to media in general, whether radio, television, the internet, or print news. The more the line between content and ads grows blurry, the more commonplace the practice becomes, and the more we’ll accept it—to the point where a branded reality is simply reality itself. When I see product placement in films, it’s still an uncomfortable reminder, but we may be nearing a time when such negative feelings disappear altogether. In his recent documentary for PBS’s Frontline series, Douglas Rushkoff interviews teenagers for whom advertisements and branding have become so naturalized (through the social media experience) that he cannot find anyone who knows what the word “sellout” means. (( http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/generation-like/. The discussion of selling out starts around 43:50. The whole documentary, however, is remarkable, enlightening—and also terrifying and sad. )) Or as Morgan Spurlock wryly quips, there’s no more selling out; henceforth, there’s only buying in.

Image Credits:
1. The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

2. Subway’s 4 to 9ers

3. Fay Wray Macy’s ad

4. Volvo tweet

Please feel free to comment.