October 5th, 2008

What Tina Fey Would Do for a SoyJoy

By Emily Nussbaum
New York Magazine

Product integration, 30 Rock, and the trouble with using brands to write TV.

Dick Blasucci was worrying about the Toyota Yaris . Those days, the car was on his mind all the time.

Blasucci had written television comedy since 1980, but he’d never seen anything like the mess at Mad TV. With lousy ratings, the Fox sketch show was the RC Cola to Saturday Night Live’s Pepsi : no buzz, little profit. So the showrunner wasn’t surprised when his bosses patched him in to a conference call with Madison Road, a broker for product integration—the latest fad in TV economics, the killer app meant to save TV from TiVo .

The deal they’d cut guaranteed four sketches for Toyota. Classic product placement, and if it kept them on the air, where was the harm? But then Blasucci started to get notes. Showing the Yaris wasn’t sufficient, said the rep from Madison Road. The characters must praise the car’s features: its roomy interior, its sleek lines. The writers pitched a spoof of a commercial, with a young couple making out in the Yaris, panting about its fuel efficiency. No, said Madison Road. Cut the parody bit. The skit should just feature the couple panting over the Yaris. They aired it—and Blasucci began to recognize he was part of “an experiment,” a test of how far the sponsor could go.

Later that season, in 2006, Madison Road deputized Blasucci to create a sketch touting the NASCAR HotPass, a deal on DirecTV. To Blasucci’s dismay, his job had become a crazy-making philosophical riddle. Was it possible to create truly funny, subversive comedy that would also sell Toyotas?

Still, the Mad TV writers kept trying. You couldn’t work in TV and be naïve. Viewers were DVRing past commercials and buying ad-free DVDs. Besides, Mad TV was just a goofy sketch show; nobody wanted to be the prima donna, throwing a big tantrum about integrity. “There was never any threat from the company saying, ‘You’re not coming back,’ but you sense it. Just naturally, you don’t want to be the guy to say, ‘No, I won’t do it!’ ”

Junior mints. Lucky Strike. Coca-Cola.

These are strange days for television. The Sopranos ended only last year; during the mourning period, one could believe that this was not the end for David Chase’s masterpiece but the beginning of a golden age. After years of being sniffed at as “chewing gum for the eyes,” TV had created a truly ambitious, universally admired series—Dickensian! Now visionary auteurs could make the kind of art that no one thought TV could handle in the first place. Mad Men, The Wire, 30 Rock …

Audi. Home Depot. SoyJoy.

And yet, even as this era was dawning, something else had been going on, and it had of course to do with money, and the fact that there was no longer any logical way of making any. Long before Wall Street took a dive, the economic structure that had for so long supported television—SHOW, ad, SHOW, ad, SHOW, credits, AD, AD!—was dissolving in the heat of the new technologies. It was no wonder the products wanted in—into the scripts, into the hands of the characters, into the story.

T-Mobile. Staples. Chanel.

Meanwhile, reality television had begun its inexorable rise. The genre had, from the start, been built on integrated sponsorship. Objecting to Project Runway’s TRESemmé hair salon would be silly, like arguing that Rice-a-Roni corrupts The Price Is Right. But as these shows filled the schedule, they took the slots once reserved for scripted series. Each season (and the seasons were dissolving, too, along with the notion of a time slot), it became harder to justify a series with a pricey cast and a team of actual writers.

Enter product integration, branded entertainment, and the new age of television economics. It’s happened so gradually you may not have noticed—or, perhaps, haven’t cared. American consumers take pride in their media savvy; they are too hip to be fooled, too jaded to be appalled. If two decades ago music fans raged when Nike co-opted the Beatles’ “Revolution,” these days the most “independent” musicians vie to be on Gossip Girl. James Bond drives a BMW, Carrie Bradshaw drinks Skyy vodka. When the U.K. culture secretary made a statement this summer warning that if product placement came to the BBC, it would “ ‘contaminate’ programmes,” his outrage struck many American observers as frankly bizarre—so outdated, so naïve, so very British.

Nonetheless, before it got distracted by last fall’s strike, the Writers Guild of America had begun to lobby against the phenomenon. In May 2007, Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, testified before the House. He showed a clip from 7th Heaven, a three-episode arc in which characters gushed repeatedly over the pleasures of Oreos. The clip ended when a young man proposed to his girlfriend by handing her an Oreo. She twisted the top off, saw the cream-gunked ring within, and beamed: “I will!”

Later, Patric Verrone, the president of the WGA, defined “branded entertainment” for the FCC. He emphasized that it involves not merely sponsored props but elaborate interweavings of brands into scripts, ads indistinguishable from the show itself. “Most Americans, like the proverbial frogs in the slowly boiling water, may not notice how prevalent it has become. Yet Nielsen Media Research tells us that product integration has occurred more than 4,000 times on network prime-time television in 2006.”

Since Verrone’s testimony, that proportion has risen vertiginously, jumping 39 percent in the first three months of this year versus the same time period last year. Within the top-ten broadcast-TV shows, advertisers paid for 26,000 product placements in 2007. And in June the WGA presented a startling proposal to the FCC, demanding that networks declare their sponsors in a banner at the bottom of the screen.

Many observers doubt the proposal will fly (the FCC hearings are now in session, with a decision possible as early as late October). That frog pot is already nearly boiling, after all; just a few more bubbles, and it’s over the top. And television integration is merely one ripple in a larger trend that also extends to “highbrow” art forms. In the recent revival of the musical Sweet Charity, the line “I’ll have a double Scotch on the rocks” was changed (with Neil Simon’s permission) to an order for “Cuervo Gran Centenario.” Damien Hirst designs for Levi’s. This summer, Sprint ran a satirical contest offering customers twenty bucks to “sell out” by integrating their own home-video YouTube clips.

Yet unlike music and movies, which have become expert at incorporating products (many musicians are practically brand magnets), television is still in the experimental stage—just starting to show results. Jak Severson, the managing partner for Madison Road, described the goal this way: “The audience cannot notice the integration but must remember it.”

Of course, open your eyes and the brands are right in front of you. Jack Bauer drives a Ford Expedition. Desperate Housewives’ Gabrielle sells the Buick LaCrosse. On Weeds, Nancy praises her Prius and sips from an “It’s a Grind” coffee cup. (Everyone on set drank “It’s a Grind,” so they made a deal with the company to provide fresh-brewed coffee.) In a crisis, 24’s Chloe shouts that their network can’t be under attack, since “the Cisco system is self-defending”; Cisco showcases the clip on its Website.

Sometimes these twists are clever, as when The Office’s Dwight took a job at Staples. And sometimes not—in The New Adventures of Old Christine, a character screamed in rage when a friend said he’d never heard of Home Depot: “It’s the biggest home-improvement store in the world,” he shouted. “It’s the greatest place on earth!”

Two years ago, Nielsen created a division devoted to tagging brands and testing for consumer response. Its researchers concluded that effective integrations combine several elements. The show and sponsor must be a perfect match. Characters should praise the brand’s features—and then an ad should appear at the commercial break, cementing the association. The goal is to “move the needle,” to get a measurable economic effect. Everyone in advertising knows the history of failed experiments (subliminal advertising, for one), so networks are eager to determine which integrations motivate, rather than annoy, consumers.

For like a wedding ring in a creamy Oreo, truly aggressive integrations can create queasy juxtapositions. On ABC’s All My Children, for example, a Campbell’s Soup deal rippled through Pine Valley like a tornado, if a tornado could be co-sponsored by Women’s Heart Health Month. Characters working for the show’s fictional cosmetic company strutted their stuff in a red-dress fashion show, with the real-life Campbell’s as a sponsor, plugging its heart-healthy line. And throughout the network’s daytime lineup, characters struggled with cardiac afflictions. (The View was involved in the project too, but no one there went quite that extra step.)

But then, this was a soap opera, contrived by definition. In the prime-time schedule and on cable, power can slide in many directions, depending on a show’s prestige and ratings—and lately, showrunners have begun to seize the reins, as with The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, recently quoted in Ad Age touting her ability to place brands. According to Marti Noxon, an executive producer of Private Practice, networks now introduce a list of “friendly” brands before the writing begins. There is even a subset of shows produced by the brands themselves, acting as their own studio, as with a series by Axe Body Wash that aired on Spike. For the viewer, there’s no way to discern what’s a prop, what’s a paid integration, and what’s just a writer freely referencing a brand, but that’s the point—after a while, suspicion contaminates every close-up.

And then there’s 30 Rock. Like its late cousin, Arrested Development, 30 Rock is that unsettling thing, a critic’s darling, a minority taste with minority ratings. (When it first won an Emmy, Tina Fey, the show’s creator, executive producer, and lead actress, thanked the sitcom’s “dozens and dozens of viewers.”)

30 Rock is the best show on network television. And half the pleasure of the series is its dazzling self-referentiality, the way it acts as an allegory for what it’s like to make TV right now. Fey—herself the first female head writer at Saturday Night Live—plays Liz Lemon, the showrunner of The Girlie Show, a second-string comedy-sketch series with middling ratings, not unlike Mad TV. Lemon considers herself an artist (or at least a “creative”), but she also wants her show to be a hit. In the first episode, she reluctantly accepts a new star (a popular, erratic black comedian named Tracy Jordan, played by erratic black comedian Tracy Morgan) and a new title, TGS With Tracy Jordan. She also meets her new boss, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), GE’s vice-president of East Coast television and microwave-oven programming.

At its heart, the sitcom is a platonic romance between these two workaholics, the nerdy purist writer and the suit who pushes her to see the big picture. What makes the show funny, and timely, and terrifying, is that on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon always loses.

When I talk to television showrunners, everyone mentions 30 Rock. After all, it has the best jokes on television about product integration. In the show’s fifth episode, Donaghy talks with Lemon about integrating brands. “I’m sorry, you’re saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?” Liz asks.

JACK: Look, I know how this sounds.

LIZ: No, come on, Jack. We’re not doing that. We’re not compromising the integrity of the show to sell—

PETE: Wow. This is Diet Snapple?

LIZ: I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn’t it?

The scene was paid for by Snapple. After it ended, there was a commercial for Snapple.

Tom Fontana is one among many TV writers who adored that scene. The creator of unorthodox series like Oz and Homicide, Fontana has never been pushed to integrate brands, but he says he would be open to it. His defense boils down to three points: verisimilitude, nostalgia, and necessity. A character who orders Wild Turkey is different from one who orders Basil Hayden’s. If you can monetize that realism, why not?

The distinction, he tells me, is not whether you do it but whether you do it well. “Is there finesse?” he asks. He also points out that 30 Rock’s ironic jokes aren’t really so modern; in fact, he just saw an episode of the Jack Benny Show that did something similar. His assistant sends over the disc.

“My sponsor called me,” says Benny, swaying before the curtain. “And my sponsor—he’s an awfully nice fella—he told me that he had a feeling—you know, he likes my show, he likes my TV show very, very much. But he had a feeling that I wasn’t doing the integrated commercials … And after all, my sponsor is paying the bills, you see, and he has the privilege of making suggestions.”

Benny pauses thoughtfully. “Of course, I don’t have to take the suggestions. I have the privilege of quitting.” Split-second beat. “But I don’t want to abuse the privilege, so … ”

Other writers share Fontana’s nostalgia. This is merely the return to an old model, they reassure me; it’s the very model you can see forming historically on Mad Men (another series that, like 30 Rock, both references product integration and weaves real brands into the plot, such as Heineken, one of the show’s sponsors). The key is to do it in ways that don’t harm the story, that even improve it—then take the money and use it well. “Better casting,” Chris Dingess, a writer for Reaper, effuses. “Sets that don’t look like sets!”

Yet at times ambivalence does creep in. When J. J. Abrams created Felicity, product placement wasn’t an issue. He fought for realism as the network erased brands, a process called “Greeking.” By the time of Alias’ third season, in 2003, the world had changed. Abrams cut a deal with Ford. He didn’t mind using the car, but Ford insisted the characters shout, “Quick, to the F-150!” Abrams cringes at the memory and says he hopes to avoid such deals in the future.

But others see such ambivalence as a luxury. Joe Davola, an executive producer of One Tree Hill, calls from his cell as he’s whizzing in his car through Los Angeles. He’s the creative partner of Mark Schwahn, the showrunner of One Tree Hill. Davola tells me he and Schwahn eagerly sought sponsors, including Sunkist. The Gatorade logo is on “the towels, the cups, the cooler” for the series’ fictional basketball team. Sunkist sponsored the tour of a musician character—and when the actor went on an actual tour, it was also sponsored by Sunkist. Another character sold her clothing line to Macy’s. (One Tree Hill’s adolescents have conveniently grown up to be entrepreneurs, helming fashion lines and music labels.)

The series won’t do anything its audience finds “phony,” Davola insists. But advertisers “like us because we’re cooperative. We know who these people are—from Sunkist, from Cingular—and the network encourages that. I don’t see the issue. If your show is struggling, and it wasn’t one of the top-twenty shows, and this would keep it on the air, what would you do?”

Charles Rosen co-founded an ad firm called Amalgamated, but his background is in independent film. A few years back, his old colleagues might have seen him as a sellout, Rosen says. “Before this shift, they didn’t really give a shit what we had to say. You were fortunate if they said, ‘Hey, here’s a Tom Cruise movie, pay what you have to pay to get your stupid box of Kleenex in.’ ” Then distribution models changed. “The entertainment world started to—was forced to—entertain brands as part of their communication.”

An activist for liberal causes, Rosen has a special interest in pairing do-gooder brands with like-minded “creatives,” as with ads created by indie musician Devendra Banhart for Fat Tire, pastoral spots that “moved the needle” for both musician and beer. In this spirit, he brokered a deal between Ben & Jerry’s and Stephen Colbert on the ice cream flavor “Americone Dream”—one of several deals Colbert, in the guise of his right-wing blowhard character, has participated in. He (or “he”) also shilled for Doritos. Like Tina Fey, Colbert has tapped into a strikingly effective style of integration, at once ironic and literal—he is a celebrity doing ads that parody celebrities who do ads.

I tell Rosen about the WGA’s proposal to the FCC. He’s stunned—and offended. “Really? That ain’t gonna happen. Dude, they just got out of a strike and now they want to bite the hand that’s feeding them?” I explain that Verrone advocates a bold banner disclosing a show’s sponsors. And frankly, Rosen kind of loses it.

“He wants it during 30 Rock—‘This line brought to you by Snapple’?!”

Rosen leans forward. “But you know what? Just do a better job integrating! If you’re really an artist, go fucking paint a picture or write a book or do something that’s fully about art. My realization in the film business was it was not about art. My passion was independent film. To say I’m going to support filmmakers whose voices are never heard. Bullshit!And if these writers think that they have some sort of integrity that’s above Snapple, they’re kidding themselves, and the shows will not allow for it, the producers will not allow for it, and the networks will not allow for it, and it’s really defeatist. They should say that their challenge is to be as good at it as 30 Rock or Talladega Nights—or Wayne’s World umpteen years ago.”

Rosen calms down a bit. “You know, the first movie I ever produced was a film called Chocolate Babies, which was about black, HIV-positive drag queens. And I loved it, and it was important, and it was funny, and it was awesome. And my mentor said, ‘Charles, if you’re ever going to make it, you better figure out that there’s a huge country between New York and L.A.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to know that! I want to make gay, black films’—and here I am as a heterosexual, white, Canadian Jew. The film was great. But horrible box office. We won every gay film festival, we even won Berlin. It doesn’t matter; it didn’t sell any films, and we were in the business of selling. That’s what business we’re in.”

The best product-integration joke on 30 Rock isn’t the one paid for by Snapple. It’s the one paid for by Verizon.

“Are you all right?” Liz asks Jack. “Never mind,” Jack replies, glancing at his phone and heading for the door. “These Verizon Wireless phones are just so popular, I accidentally grabbed one belonging to an acquaintance.” “Well, sure,” Liz replies, her voice strangely chipper. “ ’Cause that Verizon Wireless service is just unbeatable! If I saw a phone like that on TV, I’d be like, ‘Where is my nearest retailer so I can get one—’ ” Fey stares at the camera with a tight grin. “Can we have our money now?”

I want to talk to Tina Fey about that joke, but her management won’t set up an interview. So I ask her co-writer Robert Carlock, via e-mail, how he responds to criticism that they’re having their cake and eating it too. “In our 36 episodes, we’ve done product placement only three times,” Carlock writes. Though they regularly make pop-culture jokes, “the vast majority of our references are actually creative decisions with no quid pro quo.”

When there is quid pro quo, he adds, “in TV the head writers are also producers. If we are having and/or eating any cake, it’s only because we are succeeding in serving both the creative and the financial. And isn’t that what TV is all about?” Fortunately, “some companies are willing to pay to be part of the joke.”

The e-mail ends, “If you mention Papa John’s Pizza in this article, I get $40. I’ll give you 10.”

A few weeks later, Fey gives a quote to Entertainment Weekly clarifying her show’s philosophy. “We called [our deal] out really hard to let people know. If it’s a commercial, you’re going to know it’s a commercial.”

But that’s simply not true. The three integrations I know of on 30 Rock are Snapple, Verizon, and SoyJoy. I didn’t realize SoyJoy was an integration, though—I assumed it was a joke, like “Sabor de Soledad,” Liz Lemon’s favorite snack. Then a few weeks later, I saw a SoyJoy tank top in Us Weekly. I Googled it, and sure enough, “SoyJoy. Fortified with optimism!”

I call Lisa Herdman, the national television buyer at RPA, the advertising agency that handles the SoyJoy account. She’s piqued that I’d mistaken SoyJoy for a fake product. “Do you watch television?” she asks. “We’ve run our spots everywhere that any female 18 to 49 would watch!”

The SoyJoy integration was part of a larger media buy, she explains, linked with NBC’s “Green Week.” SoyJoy produced 40-second “green tips.” It sponsored Bravo’s Top Chef. And on 30 Rock, since the script for the episode in question—which centered on a fictional reality series called MILF Island—was already written, the writers inserted SoyJoy into a B-plot, in which Liz Lemon’s co-writer Pete gets his arm stuck in a vending machine. The brand was also the fictional sponsor of MILF Island. At one point, we hear its slogan in the background, contrasting with Pete’s state of despair. “That was the week ‘fortified with optimism’ was locked and loaded for us,” Herdman tells me. “And we encouraged them to get that on there somehow.”

But Herdman was most enthusiastic about SoyJoy’s next appearance, on The Closer, where the heroine, Brenda, is trying to develop healthier eating habits. “She reaches into her purse, offers it to her friend, and he says, ‘No thank you.’ ”

Does Brenda’s friend make fun of the product? “Oh, no, no, no, no,” Herdman says—on The Closer, SoyJoy hoped for more control. “The people at The Closer saw the 30 Rock episode, and their first attempt at an integration was that Brenda goes to a vending machine. And honestly? You can’t get SoyJoy out of a vending machine. There’s something about the weight of the product. We allowed 30 Rock to do that, but now we don’t want people to think they can go to vending machines to get SoyJoy.” Her voice is serious. “You know, we’re adamant that they don’t use the word ‘bar.’ Because it’s not a bar. When they presented the idea that Brenda was to taste it and offer it, I was like, as long as he doesn’t say, ‘Ew, gross.’ We’re targeting females, so for a male to decline is not a horrible thing, although we’d love for everyone to eat it.”

It occurs to me that the 30 Rock integration was a failed experiment. After all, the product looked to me (a woman 18 to 49!) like a punch line. The Pete B-plot was the weakest element of an otherwise funny episode—and worse, a male character reached for the SoyJoy.

“Yeah, honestly, I had my own idea of exactly how I wanted it,” Herdman tells me. “My initial thought was, Let’s get it to Liz Lemon. There’s a study somewhere that says soy is beneficial to menopausal women. So I had written it up that, who’s the page? Kenneth. That Kenneth was handing it to Liz Lemon, saying, ‘Ooh, someone might need some soy.’ But they’re not going to take what I say. It’s Tina Fey. And she’s brilliant.”

Keith Powell plays a minor character on 30 Rock, Toofer, the black writer from Harvard. He admires Tina Fey for her ability to alchemize her experiences, he tells me. “I think that’s what Tina’s relationship really is, figuring out how to exist as an artist in the corporate world. NBC gives notes. And Tina, instead of fighting it or giving into it, Tina uses it.”

But although he loved the Verizon bit, Powell does mention one experience that troubled him. “American Express paid us a tremendous amount to do spots during the commercial breaks. Little mini-storylines to stop people from DVRing through. And at some point, some of the cast members started saying, ‘Are we doing a commercial or are we filming 30 Rock?’ ”

Powell sounds conflicted as he speaks about these ads, the “interstitials.” (The industry also calls them “podbusters.”) Using the show’s characters in ads was ingenious, he says. But Powell, who has done successful commercials, knows they generally pay a noncompete clause, to insure actors can’t pitch a competing product. The cast members discussed the lack of compensation, but nobody seems to have complained. He circles back: “I do want to make it clear I think that we need product integration. If Verizon didn’t pay us to say ‘Give us the money,’ we wouldn’t be on the air. They’ve created an environment where they can show any product and people find it funny. I’m glad it’s my show that figured this out!”

Comic Judah Friedlander also plays a writer on 30 Rock. He, too, wasn’t sure what the deal was with those interstitials. Sometimes, he says, “there’s integration going on and I don’t even know it. Maybe if you’re a huge star, you can say no. Where I’m at, you pretty much do it if they tell you.”

A few days later, I find myself gazing at an American Express magazine ad featuring Tina Fey. The image is hypnotically appealing. In it, Fey sits on the floor of her messy office, with her adorable toddler, looking smart and intense. Like Apple, like Ben & Jerry’s, like 30 Rock, Tina Fey is herself a brand that women 18 to 49 might find seductive. She’s the working mom (who plays an iconic single woman), the girl nerd with power, capable of getting chick-centric comedies greenlighted in this Apatow age. She zapped Aaron Sorkin; she zinged Sarah Palin. Bitch is the new black.

If Tina Fey thinks it’s okay, who am I to disagree?

Then something interesting crops up on the Internet, a different type of experiment. It’s by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d last seen Whedon on the set of Firefly, a Fox space-Western about a group of rebels fleeing a corporation that governs their universe. The series premiered in 2002, in retrospect the year everything changed. Joe Millionaire became a monster hit. DVRs were new; DVDs were a big deal; online TV hadn’t happened, but it was on the horizon. Aired out of order, Firefly was canceled after eleven episodes despite a fanatical online following. Yet it was a surprise hit on DVD, enabling Whedon to make a movie. Serenity won raves but flopped at the box office. So it goes.

Whedon is about to launch Dollhouse, a new series on Fox. But in the interim, he’s whipped up a pet project, a labor of love that is also a stab at a new kind of TV economics—and a response to the paralysis he witnessed during the writers’ strike. It’s a musical called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, 42 minutes long, filmed in six days, starring Neil Patrick Harris as Billy, an anarchist nerd who dreams of being a supervillain. Quirky and hilarious, it streamed free for a week online (crashing the server the first night.) Then it went onto iTunes, debuting at No. 1. A DVD launches this fall. A tech blogger ran the numbers and concluded Whedon might make real money. This could “signal the beginning of the end of television as the medium of the least common denominator and the beginning of the profitable niche market,” the blogger wrote, applauding a “freemium model” enabling cult creators to get funding directly from their audience.

I ask Whedon about 30 Rock. Like Fontana, he’s a fan. He thought the Verizon joke was fantastic. But he adds a caveat: You can only do that joke once. “You can’t do it again and be cute, because then it’s a different type of shilling. Eventually you realize the reason they’re making a joke is because there’s something abhorrent going on.”

I tell him about the SoyJoy deal. He’s troubled; he hadn’t realized that was an integration. (He also hadn’t realized it was a real brand.) But it’s the American Express podbusters that really set him off. “My wife and I get very angry. We invest in the reality of the show! And this is one of the ways they’re picking apart the idea of the narrative, keeping you from knowing if it’s a show or not.”

It’s not just one series or one network, he points out. Everybody does it, and the strike added almost nothing to his colleagues’ ability, or willingness, to push back, not merely against integration but against the way storytelling itself has been corroded—by required “Webisodes,” the insistence that writers blog every impulse, even the erosion of the end credits. “They want to take the story apart so they can stuff it with as much revenue as they can. And ultimately what you get is a zombie, a stuffed thing—a non-show.”

Asked to use a particular phone, Whedon might say yes. “If we need to talk about the wonder of that phone? I don’t know.” Television is a mass art, requiring compromise, pragmatism, he knows—but the line creators draw should not be about “How coolly can I do this? The most artful can be the most unethical.”

LIZ: So, we wrote a product integration sketch.

JACK: Good.

LIZ: But we wanted to run it by you first, because it’s about how GE is making us do this, and we were kind of hoping that the GE executive in the sketch could be played by you.

JACK: Oh, I get it. The whole self-referential thing: Letterman hates the suits, Stern yells at his boss, Nixon’s “Sock it to me” on Laugh-In. Yeah, hippie humor.

Which is more naïve, Whedon’s belief in the radical power of storytelling—or the notion that every integration is acceptable, as long as the suits and the creatives stay friendly?

Could Whedon’s experiment really suggest an alternative to the Branded Universe? I want to believe in that possibility. But I know there’s another future, and it’s by far the more likely one, especially now that the economy has crumbled for real. In this version, that creative riddle that stumped Dick Blasucci on Mad TV has been solved. It is indeed possible to create subversive comedy that also sells Yarises. On most TV series, brands are woven indiscernibly into each plot twist—while on others they are referenced openly, with tremendous finesse, because there’s no longer any distinction between what’s funny and what moves the needle. Characters are designed as shills or consumers from day one. Shows themselves are brands, actors are brands, and so are songs and sodas, and these entities link and detach with the elegance of acrobats. No one will see a distinction between a scriptwriter and a copywriter—least of all an audience member—because that frog has boiled beyond recognition.

Welcome to the new Golden Age, fortified with optimism.

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