Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Simpsons simulacrum

Life imitates art at the Kwik-E-Mart (for a limited time only)...

The Simpsons Movie was released last Friday, 27 July, on the back of a clever, extravagant, and lucrative campaign involving immersive, real-life versions of the fictitious Springfield convenience store, Kwik-E-Mart, across North America.

An undisputed pop culture phenomenon, The Simpsons' nearly two-decade roll makes it both the longest-running animated series and the longest-running sitcom in television history, during which time it has driven what must amount to many, many millions of dollars' worth of tie-in sales (I remember getting my first Simpsons shirt at about age ten). But for its transition to the big screen, now an almost mandatory rite of passage for successful TV shows, the marketers opted for an unusual strategy which has generated considerable buzz (and I'm not just talking about the cola). According to a Wall Street Journal report [subscription required], 26 July 02007, p. B1:
[T]he Kwik-E-Mart promotion ... is the most visible example of how the long-running television show's alternate universe of brands has been spun into a kind of reverse product-placement campaign to tout the film.

Instead of having real products from 7-Eleven and other companies strategically dropped into the movie, the "Simpsons" team is putting its fictional brands -- from Krusty Burgers and KrustyO's cereal to Buzz Cola and Duff Beer -- to work in the real world.
"We had to come up with something different for this movie because everyone is used to the standard promotions," says Pam Levine, co- president, domestic theatrical marketing for Twentieth Century Fox.

While staying in Vancouver recently, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see for myself the Kwik-E-Mart in Coquitlam, British Columbia (like the others, a 7-11 store with a temporary Simpsons makeover). It's the only one in Canada; there are eleven in the US (and that's all -- sorry, world). And so, as uncool as I realise this admission reveals me to be; yes, on the day the movie opened, I undertook a half-hour drive to get to this store, snapped a bunch of photos, lined up with a slew of other fans, and bought and devoured one of Apu's revolting Squishees.

It was great.

And then it got me thinking. I was reminded of a low-key theme park. I always have mixed feelings about theme parks -- ingeniously designed experiences on the one hand, shameless commercial artifice on the other. But this was not the same as a theme park, because it wasn't behind fences and ticket booths and designated as a fantasy zone; it managed the illusion almost seamlessly by temporarily redecorating, inside and out, a basically identical type of enterprise (7-11) on the same premises.

What was notable here, then, was to find this rather well executed recreation of a corner-store franchise from a cartoon, in an unassuming strip mall between a Starbucks and a Chinese restaurant. Yes, it was embarrassingly satisfying to behold, and consume, tangible incarnations of things hitherto seen only in Matt Groening's colourful parallel universe. But on the island of fiction-come-to-life in a sea of unremarkable suburban fact, the ways in which the fiction maintained its internal consistency were what tickled me most.

That is, the green Kwik-E-Mart uniforms sported by the cashiers, and the Squishee machines modelled on those in the TV show, were much more interesting than the Simpsons-branded merchandise actually featuring the famous four-fingered family, or the life-size character cutouts next to which customers would cheerfully pose for happy snaps. The difference being, I suppose, that the former category of props kept up the in-scenario conceit (diegetic), while the latter category broke the fourth wall and were instead about, and in that sense outside, the scenario (non-diegetic). Perhaps others felt the same way, because non-diegetic "souvenirs" still sat on the shelves -- keyrings etc -- while almost all the specially produced "Kwik-E-Mart" products were, said some apologetic signs, sold out.

One of the interesting things about The Simpsons' distinctive, era-making humour is the way it's been able to satirise and mock corporate America relentlessly, while remaining thoroughly integrated with it. This brand of subversiveness is deeply ambivalent -- because literally, it is a brand, and a highly successful one at that. For example, the characters frequently joke at the expense of Fox, the US network owned by Rupert Murdoch that is its TV home. But meanwhile, its executives are laughing all the way to the bank. Who's the joke really on, in this situation? The tongue-in-cheek signage around the store highlighted the irony of the earnest commodification of The Simpsons' often scathing social critique ("Buy 3 for the price of 3!", "Satisfaction guaranteed or your money begrudgingly refunded", "Thank you for loitering. Please come again."). 7-11 was having the piss taken out of it even while the money kept flowing in.

Anyway, I haven't gone to see the movie, and I won't bother until it hits DVD. But as a sort of commercial art installation, this Simpsons simulacrum (a copy without an original) gets top marks, meanwhile lending weight to an idea long espoused in eastern mysticism that ostensible opposites, such as reality and fantasy, critique and co-optation, are closer than they may at first appear.

1 comment:

tokyocrunch said...

I was similarly disheartened by the compromises the Kwik-E-Mart promotion made to the fourth wall (plastic stand-ups? blech.). Not having seen the products firsthand, I'd imagine that somewhere on that oh-so-authentic KrustyO's box is a reminder of the movie opening date and official movie URL, just like they have on the "real" boxes in the animated universe. (A friend suggested that for the Simpsons-inspired products to be accurate manifestations -- and in my opinion more compelling -- they be only sparsely ornamented, with all fine details in the nondescript squiggles of animator shorthand).

Promoverkill like this is a testament to the flatness of marketers and their unwillingness to accept the power of the cognitive bridges we, as a semi-intelligent audience, build between concepts. As if an ever-present box of KrustyO's on your kitchen shelf wasn't reminder enough that your obsession was soon to grace the big screen? Can we not connect our own dots in whatsoever way we choose to arrange them?

I've seen similar promotions that have muddled the diegetic and non-diegetic, as you call it (cached, commentary here.) It seems an awful waste of effort to build a universe only to break it.