Thursday, July 7, 2011

New Movie Ads in Old TV Reruns?

Reddit users, according to this Slash Film article, noticed that ads for the new Kevin James Comedy "Zookeeper," and the Gwyneth Paltrow musical "Country Stong" had been digitally inserted into recently broadcast reruns for the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother," that originally aired several years ago. The ads aren't particularly obtrusive, but once you notice them, it's hard not to be creeped out.

Remember Orwell's "1984"? Remember the hero Winston Smith, who had the job of literally rewriting history by replacing any scrap of contrary literature with a corrected version of events that conformed to the ruling party's needs of the moment? We've always been at war with Eastasia, not Eurasia. I'm not going to say we've entered the era of Big Brother here, but boy is this a step in the wrong direction. Revision of our entertainment via CGI has been done before - new and improved special effects for "Star Wars" and "Red Dwarf," the deletion of the World Trade Center towers from the New York skyline - but never with such blatant ulterior motives. Yes, those motives boil down to advertising for a couple of Sony movies, but the potential for so much worse is there.

I think what bothers me most is that the marketing people responsible for this opted to incorporate the advertising images into the environment of the show itself, mostly in backgrounds, in such a way that their presence is practically subliminal. The ads are so small, you can't read the text on them. They could have just as easily slapped a couple of bugs or one of those hellaciously annoying ad banners on the bottom of the screen. I expect this new tactic is intended to combat the audience's ingrained instinct to ignore more obvious ads. Maybe after sneaking the advertising images into the viewer's line of sight, when we see bigger versions of the same ones later, those images are supposed to ping as familiar somehow? Or be unconsciously associated with the adventures of a quintet of cute, relatable New Yorkers?

And what's next? Are we going to see advertisements popping up in other reruns too? Will they be updated for each subsequent broadcast to sell the next new movie or video game or website? And heck, why stop at the television shows? Studios could easily start altering the virtual landscape of old movies too, especially the ones that are already slathered in product placement. Why not have James Bond driving the newest Aston Martin in all the older Bond films? Why not fix it so that Carrie Bradshaw of "Sex in the City" is always magically using the most up-to-date Apple laptop, and always was? I mean, apparently we're supposed to believe that the advertising campaign for "Zookeeper" was under way back in 2007, when Kevin James was still the King of Queens, and hadn't yet inflicted "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" upon the world. It's not much more of a stretch.

The biggest fear is, of course, that an unscrupulous somebody might get the bright idea to apply this kind of technology to non-fiction programs, to news footage and other records that might be deemed problematic. They do this already in repressive countries, doctoring photos and editing video to suit their own ends. Even here in the U.S. we've come to expect a certain amount of alteration to the images we consume - blemishes vanish from cover models, and video is digitally processed to remove static and adjust lighting levels. However, reaching back into the past to adjust existing content is a new development, creating a challenge to our own memories. How can we trust the integrity of what we watch and hear if it's all subject to corporate revision?

And the more comfortable the media becomes with this kind of manipulation, the greater the danger that it'll be easier to cross lines that shouldn't be crossed in the future. Someday they may not employ these tactics just for the sake of marketing - not that marketing isn't bad enough. Someday it might not just be ad-free versions of popular sitcoms that disappear down the memory hole.

Maybe I've been reading too much science fiction and Kevin James isn't really the harbinger of our doom. But that said, any unexplained urge to watch "Zookeeper" should be held under the highest suspicion. If they're messing around with the integrity of the media fabric just for the advertisements for this thing, who knows what awful horrors the movie itself will contain?

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