Imaginary brands as “product displacement”

Posted by Rob Walker on May 12, 2009
Posted Under: Entertainment,Imaginary Brands


As some of you know, I have a particular fascination with imaginary brands — it’s a subject that’s come up in Consumed (here and here), and on this site, and in my Delicious links. So I was extremely interested to learn of this Tumblr blog, curated by Gladys Santiago, documenting what she calls  “product displacement.”

This involves the use of imaginary brands as, in effect, stand-ins for real brands we already know. For instance, above, a bucket of Colonel Likkin’s Southern Fried Chicken. I don’t have to tell you what that stands in for. Apparently it was used on the TV show Pushing Daisies. Other examples: Coffee Bucks on Scrubs, and TitTat candy on My Name Is Earl. (The Product Displacement blog also documents instances of unbranding — as when the logos are removed from cars and so on — but I’m not going to address that here.)

Santiago (who I got to meet, briefly, the other night at the Blowing Up The Brand event) explains the parameters of product displacement here. And here she argues that some product displacements are “arguably more clever and memorable than even some of the most exhaustedly planned brand integration strategies. ”

It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize “Tit Tat” and “Coffee Bucks” as stand-ins for real brands, but that recognition allows audiences to engage with product placements in a manner that is significantly more encompassing than simply spotting a branded product onscreen.  Referencing these product displacements to their real world counterparts requires audiences to actively draw upon their cultural capital and awareness, therefore they have more resonance than a strategically placed can of Coca-Cola or character mindlessly raving about his/her T-Mobile phone.

Ultimately, product displacements have the opportunity to flatter the intelligence of viewers, especially if they are parodic and satirical in nature.  I particularly like My Name is Earl and Scrubs examples because they provide an allure of audience members being in on a private joke that mocks Kit Kat and Starbucks.

Pretty interesting!

Oh, and Santiago has also created this massive Flickr set of “deliberate and unintentional” examples of product appearances in scripted shows.

UPDATE: Follow-up  posts worth a look on Eyecube, and AdFreak.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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