The series won’t do anything its audience finds “phony,” Davola insists. But advertisers “like us because we’re cooperative. We know who these people are—from Sunkist, from Cingular—and the network encourages that. I don’t see the issue. If your show is struggling, and it wasn’t one of the top-twenty shows, and this would keep it on the air, what would you do?”
Charles Rosen co-founded an ad firm called Amalgamated, but his background is in independent film. A few years back, his old colleagues might have seen him as a sellout, Rosen says. “Before this shift, they didn’t really give a shit what we had to say. You were fortunate if they said, ‘Hey, here’s a Tom Cruise movie, pay what you have to pay to get your stupid box of Kleenex in.’ ” Then distribution models changed. “The entertainment world started to—was forced to—entertain brands as part of their communication.”
An activist for liberal causes, Rosen has a special interest in pairing do-gooder brands with like-minded “creatives,” as with ads created by indie musician Devendra Banhart for Fat Tire, pastoral spots that “moved the needle” for both musician and beer. In this spirit, he brokered a deal between Ben & Jerry’s and Stephen Colbert on the ice cream flavor “Americone Dream”—one of several deals Colbert, in the guise of his right-wing blowhard character, has participated in. He (or “he”) also shilled for Doritos. Like Tina Fey, Colbert has tapped into a strikingly effective style of integration, at once ironic and literal—he is a celebrity doing ads that parody celebrities who do ads.
I tell Rosen about the WGA’s proposal to the FCC. He’s stunned—and offended. “Really? That ain’t gonna happen. Dude, they just got out of a strike and now they want to bite the hand that’s feeding them?” I explain that Verrone advocates a bold banner disclosing a show’s sponsors. And frankly, Rosen kind of loses it.
“He wants it during 30 Rock—‘This line brought to you by Snapple’?!”
Rosen leans forward. “But you know what? Just do a better job integrating! If you’re really an artist, go fucking paint a picture or write a book or do something that’s fully about art. My realization in the film business was it was not about art. My passion was independent film. To say I’m going to support filmmakers whose voices are never heard. Bullshit! And if these writers think that they have some sort of integrity that’s above Snapple, they’re kidding themselves, and the shows will not allow for it, the producers will not allow for it, and the networks will not allow for it, and it’s really defeatist. They should say that their challenge is to be as good at it as 30 Rock or Talladega Nights—or Wayne’s World umpteen years ago.”
Rosen calms down a bit. “You know, the first movie I ever produced was a film called Chocolate Babies, which was about black, HIV-positive drag queens. And I loved it, and it was important, and it was funny, and it was awesome. And my mentor said, ‘Charles, if you’re ever going to make it, you better figure out that there’s a huge country between New York and L.A.’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to know that! I want to make gay, black films’—and here I am as a heterosexual, white, Canadian Jew. The film was great. But horrible box office. We won every gay film festival, we even won Berlin. It doesn’t matter; it didn’t sell any films, and we were in the business of selling. That’s what business we’re in.”
The best product-integration joke on 30 Rock isn’t the one paid for by Snapple. It’s the one paid for by Verizon.
“Are you all right?” Liz asks Jack. “Never mind,” Jack replies, glancing at his phone and heading for the door. “These Verizon Wireless phones are just so popular, I accidentally grabbed one belonging to an acquaintance.” “Well, sure,” Liz replies, her voice strangely chipper. “ ’Cause that Verizon Wireless service is just unbeatable! If I saw a phone like that on TV, I’d be like, ‘Where is my nearest retailer so I can get one—’ ” Fey stares at the camera with a tight grin. “Can we have our money now?”
I want to talk to Tina Fey about that joke, but her management won’t set up an interview. So I ask her co-writer Robert Carlock, via e-mail, how he responds to criticism that they’re having their cake and eating it too. “In our 36 episodes, we’ve done product placement only three times,” Carlock writes. Though they regularly make pop-culture jokes, “the vast majority of our references are actually creative decisions with no quid pro quo.”