So let’s say you’re watching Gene Hackman driving John Travolta through West Hollywood in an open convertible in 1995’s Get Shorty, and there’s that tracking shot rolling down Sunset Boulevard. As in so many other films shot in LA, you see in the background the massive ad on the side of the building at 8401 Sunset. If you’re like me, in movie moments like this, you’re thrilled at the opportunity to see what icon of pop culture was hot enough to warrant 15,000 square feet of billboard space at that point in history. But instead of a 200-foot-tall Clint Eastwood, you see… an ad for Transformers 3? Is that possible?
Thanks to a digital advertising company called SeamBI, it is. A recent Entertainment Weekly story highlights a 2006 rerun of How I Met Your Mother (doing quite well in syndication) that was loaded with digitally-inserted advertisements for the 2011 movie Bad teacher. Even the plasma screens on which the ads are playing were added into the shots.
If I Ran Hollywood, I would apply some measure of regulation to this practice. Now, I am not against advertisers finding new revenue streams through product placement – my continued bread and butter depends on their success in reaching the audience despite our DVR commercial-bypassing culture. But imagine the many layers of implications in marrying bits of entertainment history with modern products, regardless of the desires of the actors or producers who share credit for the mash-up. I am reminded of an old Diet Coke ad where long-dead performers like Louis Armstrong were digitally resurrected to hawk the (allegedly brain-damaging) beverage in a bubbly new spot. Is this not something Satchmo should have been consulted on first?
More importantly to me is the historic context that becomes sabotaged in this act. Personally, I love spotting the signs of the times when watching old movies & TV shows. It’s a means of dating a film in the context of pop culture at that time. For someone like me, whose reading/viewing/listening diet consists mostly of entertainment, this is an important way to bone up on my history. For most people, it may not mean much to have their pop culture eras mashed in this way – but growing comfortable with the practice of altering our entertainment is inevitably going to subvert our perception of reality. Neo knows what I'm talking about.
We of the Sci-Fi generation can all appreciate the fear of one day living in a world where technology is so advanced, you can’t tell real life from virtual world: a waking dreamscape where any reality can be presented to us and no amount of pinching oneself can deliver us back to the truth. Combine that technology with the ability to quickly and cheaply change the context of history (whether it be entertainment or that other thing…. what is it? Oh yeah, reality), and add a dash of imagination… you can barely fathom what “the truth” really is.
Fast forward a few years… how will this permeate itself into pop culture once it’s become an accepted, seamless approach to feeding us our media diet? How will politicians use this approach to associate themselves (or their rivals) with the desired contextual message (Obama keeps a picture of Hitler on his nightstand?)? How will banks or oil companies use it to “organically” bolster their image in our minds? Will subtle implications like “we were there to help with the 9-11 rescue effort” become an unspoken (therefore ineligible for false advertising charges) means of using a conventional approach to stake a claim on our national good will? What will be the value of “the truth” when reality can so easily be manipulated?
I realize how paranoid and cynical this all sounds. It’s just a stupid ad for a bad movie… relax. Okay, I will relax. But it’s always scary for me when Hollywood and advertisers join forces this way. I still remember when it was a sin to have to endure one or two commercials before watching a feature film. Disney established a policy refusing to show a film in any theater showing commercials... that was 20 years ago. Last month, when I took my kids to see Cars 2, we had to sit through 20 solid minutes of non-stop advertisements… not movie trailers, commercials - mostly for sugary, caffeinated crap that I won’t let my kids put into their bodies.
Imagine yourself in the year 1984 (if you’re old enough) trying to convince your friends that, one day, we would voluntarily provide gigabytes of sensitive personal information about ourselves into a vast and easily cracked network, plugging into a matrix where our likeness (and that of our children) was stored in a publicly accessible location for all to see, and a handful of paying advertisers to use freely to market products TO YOU – STARRING YOU!
You’d call me paranoid, would you not?
Well I don’t know about you, but I’m hanging onto my old DVD copy of Get Shorty. I don’t want my movie-watching experience to be disrupted by a 20-story tall painting in the background of me and my kids sharing a Diet Coke.