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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Art, cinema and media studies

“Answer Me 1988” (응답하라 1988, Reply 1988): A Transmedia Text & Manual to Navigate Another Era’s Fandom

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According to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, “the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (6). Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the show Answer Me 1988 where several forms of media converge in one medium—television. The show includes cinema, video games, music, style (fashion, hair, makeup), internet chat rooms, comic books—even food package designs (iconic brands that are recognizable at a glance)—all of which are set in the 1980s. The main vehicle that Answer Me 1988 utilizes for its transmedia reception is the spectators’ nostalgia: “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with each other” (3). Similar to The Matrix example explored by Jenkins, by blending various forms of old school pop culture items into one program, Answer Me 1988 becomes a transmedia text containing the 80s memory belonging to generation x but also one that works to clue in the later generations on the fandom of the past. As Jenkins defines in “Interactive Audiences?”: “Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows” (165). Answer Me 1988 assumes the kind of audience that is willing and able to follow its media flows regardless of the viewer’s age or background. This is evident in the show’s casting choices, music and the show’s ability to function as a manual to guide contemporary viewers through the nostalgia of a different era and culture.

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Answer Me 1988 (2015-2016), written by Lee Woo-jung and directed by Shin Won-ho, is an hour long, twenty-episode Korean dramedy series that aired on the cable network tvN, owned by media conglomerates CJ Media and Fox International Channels. The show’s finale had an AGB Nielson rating of 18.8%, and a TNmS rating of 18.4%–both of which are considerably high numbers for a cable channel.[1] It is notable that although tvN is a pay cable channel, it does not contain any violence, nudity, sex or profanity, which encourages a family viewing experience. What this further suggests is that although viewers under the age of 30 may not recognize the tunes, films, commercial jingles and other media texts played on the show, the parents or older viewers who are watching alongside them might. The show creators bank on this type of audience interaction where convergence spreads across generations by reaching for a wider demographic: “…franchises depend on hypersociability, that is, they encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers” (Convergence Culture, 112). This reach for a broader audience is apparent in the show’s casting.

Lee Hye-ri who plays the lead role—Deok-seon—is a K-pop star from the girl group Girl’s Day. She’s a recognizable face whose singing career spans 5 years with a budding acting career since 2014. The very act of crossing over one’s recognition as a singer to an actor is a form of transmediation; fans who are plugged into the pop world can be led into the drama world via Lee Hye-ri’s career transition. Furthermore, the show adds another dimension to Lee Hye-ri’s initial doll-like pop star image with her character image of Deok-seon, which is that of a normal neighborhood teenager with plain black cropped hair who doesn’t perform well in school but has a kind heart and a goofy personality thus humanizing her appearance. The manner in which a star’s image changes in the spectator’s mind is also a form of transmediation as it moves from singer to actor, but also from unreachable to accessible.

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The creators of Answer Me 1988 as well as the other Answer Me series (arguably a franchise), e.g. Answer Me 1997 (2012), Answer Me 1994 (2013), distance themselves from assumptions that the subsequent shows are sequels or prequels. However, the franchise does play with the series timeline as defined by Jenkins in Textual Poachers dropping in cameo appearances of actors from the earlier series to suggest a link or connection to one another (163). For instance, Sung Shi-won played by girl group K-pop star Jung Eun-ji in Answer Me 1997 appears in Answer Me 1994 alongside Jung Woo who plays Kim Jae-joon in Answer Me 1994. Kim Jae-joon then makes a cameo appearance in Answer Me 1988. This method of expanding the series timeline to keep Answer Me fans invested in the reality of the story world is a method of attracting viewers through a transmedia engagement (163). The creators’ strategy relies on casting and recasting. However, the recasting strategy also complicates the viewing experience as the protagonist’s parents played by Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il are always the same throughout the series by retaining their dialects, persona, and names. This forces viewers to accept each series as its own text via “cross overs” of the protagonists’ parent figures; the protagonist’s character and actor changes whereas the parents do not (170). What may be comforting to viewers about this is knowing that there’s a through line connecting all three shows, and in that regard, the previous series’ storyline never really ended with the finale episode, thus indulging fans emotionally.

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K-pop star images aside, Answer Me 1988 has an original soundtrack album available on iTunes as well as in the form of a music video DVD produced and distributed by CJ Media. The soundtrack includes throwbacks like “Youth,” originally sung by the band Sanulrim in 1981 but covered by Kim Feel—a contemporary artist signed with the record label CJ E&M (a record company owned by CJ Media of tvN network). This is another example of the show’s function as a transmedia text, drawing a “common ground” between the old and new generations through a single song (Convergence Culture, 97). The song works as both a “cultural activator” and a “cultural attractor” through its ability to appeal to a younger crowd that recognizes Kim Feel the artist but also to the older generation that recognizes the tune that brings them back to 1981—the year that Sanulrim released the hit song “Youth” (97). The show transmediates through time, fame and fandom via a single song. While attracting and activating cultural significances for multiple groups, it operates through the older generation’s nostalgia while also creating a nostalgic sensation for the younger generation with songs that have a dated feel but are sung by recognizable artists today.

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As Jenkins states, “Our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Convergence Culture, 17). In Answer Me 1988, the show’s creators allow viewers to have a transmedia experience through a visual flashback across media channels experiencing everything from old music via cassette tapes that get visibly inserted into a cassette player, followed by a long montage of the characters’ faces simply listening as the song plays out in its entirety, to live concert shows on TV that the characters watch excitedly as a group. What makes Answer Me 1988 a unique transmedia text is its ability to work also as a fandom instruction manual in the form of a show. The indulgent scenes illustrated earlier inform younger spectators on the fandom culture that existed before their time. In this particular story world, fandom itself converges across generations.[2] The enthusiastic reception of the characters watching these shows informs a younger spectator of the fan culture back when those shows, tunes, and films were at their peak. Fandom gets instructed to younger viewers via this transmedia text, where witnesses (characters) respond with joy to the movie, song or TV show playing inside the show. The show creators consciously designed a story world where multiple generations could learn to appreciate the various forms of transmediated texts throughout. Jenkins states that our society is “increasingly fragmented and multicultural,” however this show’s ability to draw a diverse viewership through a period piece that exploits a recent past and its nostalgic elements is striking (Convergence Culture, 125).[3]

There is a considerable number of articles and research indicating Korean dramas’ global fan base reaching beyond South Korea. K-drama streaming sites such as Viki and DramaFever report higher percentages of non-Korean viewers than Korean viewers tuning in. In the case with transnational fandom for Answer Me 1988, how does a nation’s specific cultural nostalgia translate, especially when “not all participants are created equal,” meaning, when not all participants share the same memory and cultural experience (3)? What makes Answer Me 1988 a transmediated text is that it is accessible beyond just generation X Koreans. There are multiple entry points for viewers to interact with the text: familiar voices, faces, products, and the creators’ signature. Fans who’ve seen the previous Answer Me shows presumably have an appreciation for this one as well, and notice patterns throughout. The show successfully establishes a sense of “common experience” or ground where audiences across generations and cultures can find ways to engage with the text. As Jenkins illustrates, the internet has made fan experience global, and fans on the margins may now partake in that collective “knowledge space” or realm (“Interactive Audience?,”158). Beyond space, transmedia also breaks boundaries across time (generation gaps) as evidenced by Answer Me 1988.

Grace Jung
May 13, 2016

Bibliography

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. 2002. “Interactive Audiences?” The New Media Book, edited by Dan Harries. 157-170. London: BFI.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

[1]Reply 1988: Episode Ratings,” All About Korean Drama, http://www.koreandrama.org/reply-1988/, May 5, 2016.

[2] See also “Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation” by Dominik Schrey.

[3] The high reception of the Answer Me series that utilizes nostalgia (created or triggered) as its hallmark influenced MBC’s variety/reality show Infinite Challenge to take on similar tasks by reuniting old K-pop groups that disbanded in the 90s or early 2000s and putting on live concerts which then influenced the music charts around the time those shows aired; 90s hits became the most requested songs on radios or the most downloaded songs at those times. A K-drama’s approach influencing a variety/reality show’s unscripted production is also, arguably, a form of transmedia, where different genres of television share (borrow or steal) a similar concept that eventually impacts yet another industry’s variable—the music charts.

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