Ellen DeGeneris is adorable, and as ideal a public face to place on the image of gay acceptance and same-sex marriage as you could concoct in a marketing strategy meeting. She’s funny, she’s friendly, she’s nice: to be threatened in any way by Ellen is to be the epitome of an irrational homophobe.. Her accumulated good largely insulated her from the negative criticism she earned with a shockingly inept performance as this year’s host of the Academy Awards ceremony. She didn’t exactly make one long for Seth (“We saw your boobs!”) McFarland, last year’s oppressive MC,but watching her—any experienced performer could see the signs of a comic who knew she was bombing and had no idea what to do about it—was uncomfortable when it wasn’t deadly boring.
The one routine that seemed successful was DeGeneris’s successful effort to create the “most re-tweeted tweet of all time,” which she accomplished by dragooning Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence Lupita Nyong’o, Kevin Spacey and Jared Leto in to take a selfie with her. It garnered over 3 million retweets at last count. But it was a set-up. This was not just a fun party stunt with friends, which is how it was represented to the audience and indeed to the stars themselves. No, the selfie was part of a very pricey deal between the Academy and Samsung, which sells the recently enhanced Galaxy S5 Ellen used to take the picture.
From the Wall Street Journal:
As part of its sponsorship and ad pact for the Oscars with ABC, the TV network airing the show, Samsung and its media buying firm Starcom MediaVest negotiated to have its Galaxy smartphone integrated into the show, according to two people familiar with the matter….Samsung gave ABC smartphones to use during the broadcast and was promised its devices would get airtime, these people said….Ms. DeGeneres, in the days leading up to the broadcast, decided she wanted to take “selfies” during the show and ABC suggested she use a Samsung since it was a sponsor, another person familiar with the matter said. During rehearsals Samsung executives trained Ms. DeGeneres on how to use the Samsung Galaxy, two people familiar with the matter said. “It was a great plug for the Samsung brand,” said Allen Adamson, managing director at Landor Associates, a branding firm owned by WPP PLC. “Ellen’s selfie is going to be more impactful than their commercials. You can’t buy that magic of going viral,” he added.
Darling Ellen does not seem so adorable to me any more. Yes, I know this is show business: I’ll write the comments myself and put them in an old mayonnaise jar to check against the real ones later: “This is a show! Why would you expect anything to be real or spontaneous!” “Who cares? I didn’t even notice what kind of phone Ellen used!” “There’s product placement in Hollywood movies all the time!” I’ll even admit myself that part of this is the “Ick factor” at work—what was presented as a fun and spontaneous moment with a bunch of famous actors acting goofy was really a disguised commercial, and that makes me feel duped.
This is more than “ick,” however. When those products turn up in movies and TV shows, we know they are part of a product placement deal, little display ads in the drama. I have always thought it was an annoying practice; in theatrical terms, it takes the audience, however briefly, out of the moment and suspended disbelief, which means that the dramatic work’s creators have agreed to allow it to be a little less convincing and entertaining to serve their corporate master, but that’s the culture now: baseball parks and sports stadiums are named after banks and dot-coms rather than community figures or local areas. It’s crass and ugly, but its commerce. Everything is for sale.
That doesn’t justify lying to us, which is what Ellen did. She doesn’t use a Samsung herself—her personal tweets after the show came from a different device—so what she represented to the Hollywood audience and the TV viewers as “Let’s have some fun!” was really “Let’s earn that 20 million bucks!”, some of which was going into her pocket. Was Ellen secretly in league with the electronics giant? Well, Samsung has announced it would match the number of retweets by donating $3 million to two charities of DeGeneres’ choosing: St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and The Humane Society of the United States. Yes, they are worthy causes. It still looks like a pay-off.
They would seem greedy and churlish, but those stars Ellen tricked into being part of a viral Samsung ad, for that is exactly what it was, would be within their rights to demand some of that money for their images and services. Each of them would have charged a pretty penny to be featured in a Samsung print ad for the Galaxy S5, but thanks to Ellen’s charm, nine of them were enticed into giving their endorsement away for free. Gee, thanks, Ellen!
That’s not the only reason why the selfie stunt crosses from “ick” into unethical. The Oscars is a live event. Of course much of it is staged, but the staged segments are obvious and necessary. Have the acceptance speeches been rehearsed too? Did the NAACP pay a bundle to make sure “Twelve Years a Slave’ won Best Picture? Did Woody Allen’s PR firm hand Cate Blanchette a big check to thank him at the podium, as he wages an ongoing war of credibility with Dylan Farrow, who says he sexually molested her? When a real event holds itself out to be real, and not something very different that is bought and paid for, it should be as real as possible. For a public figure like Ellen DeGeneris, who is believed, believable and trusted because she represents herself as open, candid and guileless, to be the agency of such a deception makes it hurt all the more.
I know that Ellen will look at a camera all wide-eyed at some point and protest that she is being misunderstood, but I’m not trusting her after this, and I don’t think she’s so nice either. She tricked a trusting audience and her celebrity “friends” for money. As for the Oscars, never again will a spontaneous moment will free of suspicion that it was all pre-staged and paid for. I hope the Academy feels the surrender of another chunk of its dwindling supply of credibility was worth the 20 million. I’m sure it does.