Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) & Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

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.

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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.” 

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aapi, asian american, Book, eBook, Fiction, korea, Literature, Short Story, translation

Asymptote Journal’s review of SWEET POTATO by Kim Tongin, translated by yours truly.

check out their review of Sweet Potato–a collection of select short stories by Korean modernist Kim Tongin (1900-1951), translated by me.

also, Sweet Potato is now available on Amazon for Kindle readers. hard copies of the book are still available via Honford Star!

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aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, TV

Sam Okyere’s Racism Anecdote in South Korea on “Talking Street”/말하는대로

Sam Okyere is a South Korean entertainment personality originally from Ghana. Okyere appeared on JTBC’s yeneung talkshow program Talking Street to discuss how he dealt with ignorance and discrimination while living as a black man in Korea. [Please view the YouTube videos on the site for context. On Facebook, a shorter version of the story was uploaded on a page called “All Things K” and generated over 19,000 reactions.]

Initially blending wry humor on ironically responding to ridiculous questions such as “Do you raise lions back home?” he eventually delves into a much more painful anecdote on the time he experienced outright racism on the 2 train. When he was trying to take a seat on the subway, a middle-aged woman forced her way in and sat down instead. She then spread her legs widely, swore at him, and told him not to sit. She then confronted Okyere’s friend and asked why him he is hanging out with a black man. She turned to Okyere and told him to return to his country. While addressing the wrongness of this situation, Okyere goes onto explain that what hurt him the most was the reaction of the other Seoulites on that subway car, and how no one said a word to intervene. All they did was sit back and observe. As Okyere’s story progresses, a melancholic symphony plays in the background.

Throughout this two-minute story, the camera cuts to members of the live audience who are sitting on the floor around Okyere who is seated in a chair, looking down at the crowd like a teacher does when reading to elementary school children. The cutaways focus on audience faces that are frowning with disapproval or pain at Okyere’s story. There are also cutaways to the show’s hosts You Hee-yeol and HaHa (Ha Dong-hoon) who add small remarks such as, “I’ll apologize on her behalf,” “Oh my…” “It’s embarrassing,” and “I feel really sorry.”

Anti-blackness, racism and ignorance are certainly prevalent problems in the ROK (and arguably throughout Asia). They need to be addressed and corrected. Part of what this program does is help address the issues in Okyere’s story as problems. Asking questions based on ignorance is rude. Okyere speaks on the stresses of day-to-day microaggression while living in the ROK. And, of course, being outright hateful to a black man is completely unacceptable and hurtful. This much is obvious to everyone who is sitting on the sidelines as the show’s hosts, as well as the audience.

What’s missing from this program, however, is any comment on whiteness in the ROK. Anti-blackness is a learned racial discrimination that stems from the US’ military occupancy of the ROK since the 1950s. Historically speaking (in US terms), Koreans have no need to hate blackness (no enslavement of African bodies, no emancipation, no civil rights movement), so where does it come from? This question needs to be asked but it doesn’t appear in this anecdote at all. Instead, it goes from point A (Okyere as the subject), point B (the middle-aged Korean woman as the other subject), to point C (racism is obviously bad, and so are bystanders who don’t do anything about it).

Whiteness often goes missing from discussions of racism in the ROK probably because South Koreans are not used to addressing that either. The silence Okyere felt is more complicated than racial hatred; it involves universal urban solipsism (how often in any of the viral racial discrimination videos do we ever see bystanders helping out victims of hatred?), a disconnect from Western hatred for black bodies, a muteness that erupts from the solipsism and disconnect, and a confrontation with confusion at a sight such as that: a Korean woman hating a black man. What makes a middle-aged woman hate a black man?

In the general horizon of the public sphere, South Koreans have mixed feelings when it comes to US military occupancy. The ROK government accommodates the US’ militaristic needs as a means to stave off the DPRK’s aggression. Then again, prostitution, violence and racism are all problems that occur in military camps and camptowns. We can’t discuss South Korea’s racism without discussing prostitution, the cold war, the Korean War and the US military occupation of South Korea.

Whiteness is the hegemonic cloth that cloaks over these matters and silences South Korean programmers from ever shifting blame onto the US. Okyere is certainly a victim of racism in South Korea, but he is also a victim of US military whiteness and its hatred for blackness. Understanding how racism works in the ROK requires addressing global hierarchy.

(A longer piece on this matter is in the works.)

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