Product placement on scripted television shows has been done well, and it has been done badly. It has been done intentionally, and it has been done incidentally. It has been done short, and it has been done long. It has been done at the behest of advertisers, and it has been done at the whim of writers. But it's never been done as well, as intentionally, as blatantly, and for as long as last night's KFC-celebrating episode of Community (the third show to shill for the fast-food chain in the last two weeks). In the episode, a Community-style meta-send-up of space movies, the Greendale gang boards a spaceflight simulator built by Kentucky Fried Chicken in the eighties known as the "Kentucky Fried Chicken 11 herbs and space experience." The simulator has an onboard computer known as SANDERS, who's represented by a 24-bit Colonel Sanders icon and given to saying things like, "Just as KFC's secret process seals in the flavor, I'm sealing in the cabin's air so you don’t explode on your journey." The ship's instruments have "flavor readings" and "herbs and spices levels." Are you hungry yet?
As a time-buying strategy alone, we approve — we'd like the show to stick around — but last night's episode also demonstrated that Community is uniquely positioned to place product in disarming ways. It already has an existing, referential relationship to things: If those things have typically been old movies, TV shows, video games, and eighties fads, as opposed to fast-food chains, it turns out that's only been for lack of trying. Last night's Community got as obsessive and referential about retro KFC as it does about the pop culture it weekly worships and dissects. By embracing KFC so unabashedly — the in-flight simulator has "biscuit thrusters and a gravy throttle" and the names of the herbs are hidden all around the cabin — the show turned it into yet another reference point, one both as natural and odd as 2001: A Space Odyssey shout-outs and the freaky collection of doll heads also featured in last night's episode.
Unlike other equivalently protracted and intense instances of product placement — 30 Rock and the McFlurry, Modern Family and the iPad, Glee and Madonna — KFC paid Community to promote it. The series could probably use the money: It's not doing particularly well in the ratings. A little over 4 million viewers tuned in last week, CBS's Big Bang Theory dominates its time slot, and even Outsourced has a bigger audience. Given what a total mess NBC's schedule remains, Community is probably not in imminent danger of cancellation, but creator Dan Harmon's been writing stressed out ratings-related tweets every week all the same, and any way the show can make a penny for its network can’t hurt. As Señor Chang put it last night in a bit of meta-dialogue, "The press is here. I'm trying to buy us some time with these doublicious sandwiches, but they thought I was doing product integration for KFC."
Most important, Community did the one thing required for product placement to be a success: It was funny. To see how easily product placement can go wrong, just compare it to the recent KFC spots on Fox's Running Wilde and The Good Guys . (KFC apparently has a thing for advertising on low-rated programs. When we asked the company if this was a strategy or a coincidence, KFC's national media manager demurred, "These integrations were appealing because these are newer programs with tremendous star power and quality writing. These opportunities are more likely to be ‘pulled to’ not ‘pushed to’ the consumer." Okay.)
First, watch this whackadoo bit from Community, when the group meets SANDERS:
Compare that to this scene from Running Wilde, in which a woman who sounds like she's in a KFC commercial tells Steve Wilde (Will Arnett), "KFC makes original-recipe, world-famous chicken, the bucket is its iconic takeout packaging ... "
And then here's Bradley Whitford on The Good Guys asking someone what he eats for lunch. "It's a doublicious from KFC. It's kind of a sweet and savory chicken sandwich," the guys says. Whitford takes a bite and replies, "They named it right. It's not singlelicious."
Both of these are middling product placement: obvious, disconcerting, and not funny. They're also lazy: take the product, deliver the tagline, make a weak joke, get out, and cash the check. Community opted to put in far, far more effort, possibly the most effort a show has ever put in on behalf of its sponsor. It totally sold out — but sitcoms that stay funny never have to sell their soul.