All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.
The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.
But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.
The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).
Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall the Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.
Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?
Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.
But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.
Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods.
And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”
Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.
In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.
Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.”
I wrote a piece on Nymphomaniac (2014, Director’s Cut, Vol. I and II) and on what it means to be “A Radical, Vulnerable and Agentic Body.”
check out my film review of Gook (2017) featured on nü house. opens tomorrow August 18th!
Folks–The Future of Silence: Fiction by Korean Women is now out on Amazon!
I did the cover art for the book. It’s an acrylic painting. I’m quite proud of it.
It’s the dream I had just prior to moving to LA from New York. It’s a good dream. I’m willing to sell both the dream and the painting for $54K.
Please do read the book. The collection includes modern Korean authors’ short stories–all written by women–ranging from decades ago to most recent years. The amount of talent contained in this book is astounding.
The book was translated and edited by my friends/mentors Bruce and Chan Fulton. They are really quite something.
I’ll be posting an interview I did with them soon. Stay tuned.
I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.
One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.
The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…
Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.
For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter.
I wrote this back in late November for a classroom blog post. I am reposting it here now because some of the thoughts are relevant to my current situation. More on that later.
I was glad that we got to see Enlightened in class today. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I was bummed to learn that it wouldn’t get a third season, especially because season two ended on such a huge cliffhanger.
When I first watched the show, I’d already listened to interviews given by Laura Dern and Mike White—on separate occasions—on what the show is and how difficult it was to make it, and then watch it get canceled, so I’d already begun my viewing experience with some information (either at the forefront or lingering in the back) in my head. In any case, in my first viewing, I watched Amy with a lot of tension in my shoulders because she was such a train wreck with almost little to no self-awareness. It was stressful. I had to keep watching, though, because I dug the show (I’m also a fan of Mike White), and I genuinely wanted to believe in her optimism as much as she seemed to. But if you continue on with the season, and finish season two, you’ll see that she’s always the same in each episode—an idealist who is wired to be incapable of improvement—and she’s always going to make things worse for herself and those around her no matter how much she believes in her heart of hearts that there is hope for a better future and greater change.
In my second viewing of the pilot, I tried to see it differently. I tried to see it as if Amy is the normal one and everyone else is the crazy one. This made the show a lot easier to watch, and a lot more heartbreaking. She genuinely believes in a better future, change and improvement. Nobody else in her life does. Everybody thinks she’s crazy. But if I watch her as the normal one, everyone else seems completely out of line. Why doesn’t Diane Ladd’s character just let Amy read the letter? Why doesn’t Charles Esten’s character just meet with Amy in person to reconcile? Why doesn’t the company just give Amy her job back and take her up on her suggestions on fixing up the company’s reputation by making environmentally sound choices? All of these things have something to do with time and boundaries. Amy is someone who doesn’t believe in the restrictions of time and boundaries among individuals. She’s someone who wouldn’t function well in a society that holds those two things close to heart. This is what makes her the show’s heroine, and it’s what makes her constantly run into problems in her society. It’s also what causes her to be exploited later on in season 2 (no spoilers), which breaks my heart even more.
Amy is the protagonist of the show whether we like her or not. She is the one that’s given to us and we have to accept this, or we can continue to watch just hating her (lots of people have commented on how much they hate this character that Dern plays, which eventually led to the show’s demise, although Dern herself says she loves this character). I kind of love this character, too. I’m a big fan of this show because it’s a female antihero who is dressed not as a cynical, unfaithful, sex-addicted, alcoholic man (Sopranos, MadMen) but an idealist who had a lot of letdowns in her life (again, no spoilers, but she’s had it rough, hence her borderline personality) but continues to strive for optimism and hope in a world that continues to let her down and conflict with her.
With that said, reading Caldwell’s “Industrial Auteur Theory” bummed me out a lot. It’s heavy stuff. Especially the paragraph on the writer’s room culture that basically leads to symptoms of PTSD among employees, who later get told by the production company!—to go and get therapy. I can empathize to some mild degree. Working in production where pressure and stress run high (because there’s never enough time, and time so equals money here) does lead to a lot of scarring, emotional trauma, mental duress, conflicts, etc. Without therapy, there’s no way that people could survive. Makes sense why so many industry people are into Eastern religion, yoga, meditation and all that (basically all of the things Amy turned to after her breakdown). Every single actor/director friend of mine claims to be Buddhist, and they all read some new kind of self-help book, which they go around recommending me any chance that they get.
The idea of producers who take advantage of younger below-the-line crew members’ broken minds and bodies + eagerness to still make it in the industry and exploit that emotional vulnerability because they know that the young and eager will still be grateful for the opportunity to work alone is also a monstrous/ugly thing that is rampant in the industry. In a lot of ways it is rampant precisely because so many people are fighting their way to get in, and so many people are willing to make that kind of sacrifice as a form of “paying one’s dues.” Personally, I am very against this concept. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.
In the few indies I’ve produced, nearly all of the crew members did the work for no pay—just meals—because people enjoyed the filmmaking process. If it wasn’t for that then no one would’ve participated. It came from a place of passion and the desire to work with one another. We all genuinely liked being on set. After a production wraps, a lot of the times the cast and crew stay in touch for years—unless somebody really didn’t get along with another person, which also happens. These people will almost never speak to one another for years. After going through something as intense as shooting a film, it’s impossible to not become close. So there is some pay off to the agony, but making a film is an agonizing process. As it is with TV. I’m sure many people have seen that documentary 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) by Arthur Bradford. I think it’s a good film to complement what Caldwell discusses.
Speaking of desperation, I can see some parallels between the desperate, rock-bottom state that Amy is in which drives her full-force into the arms of the spiritual, incense waving, hippy-dippy world + random sea turtle spotting, which she applies epic meaning/significance to) and the desperate, zero experience unpaid interns/PAs who willingly—very passionately—run towards film/TV sets for little to nothing and get screamed at all day by the department heads and the above-the-line crew members simply because they believe in the magic of show biz. Yikes! This is super depressing to think about. Probably because it is too real, and very true of our industry.
Anyway, I still like to believe that there is light at the end of that tunnel.