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 haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.
Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.
The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.
Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.
Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.
The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.
The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well. If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.
Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)
What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…
What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site, calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.
Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.
The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.
Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.
Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)