99-Cent Salvation

Is it just me, or is this not one of the most nauseating examples of street-pimp marketing ever vomited up by a barrel-scraping network? NBC is launching dear God no not another Reality-TV-Show-But-With-A-Twist this fall, and they’re trawling for media coverage and viewers by dragging dollar bills through America’s trailer parks as a moving testament to Christian faith.

Here’s the story: Lagging behind the other networks in the popularity of its Slit Your Wrists programming, NBC has concocted a reality show designed to appeal to God-fearing WalMart shoppers from America’s heartland. In NBC’s Three Wishes, an "unscripted show" premiering this fall "singer Amy Grant travels to a different town each week in an effort
to fulfill the heart’s desire of needy families and community groups." It sounds sweet. Really.

So NBC, looking to stir up some coverage for this faith-based initiative hires a publicity firm to cook up some media impressions. The big idea? Stalk "needy shoppers" in the checkout lines of discount retail chains and trot in on a big white horse to pick up the tab with a conspicuous stack of 1-dollar bills. Why waste time and money on creative marketing when you can just buy viewers, and through the magic of stunt media, multiply your audience?

Now I know the professional marketing purists will protest that Hey, they did their job and got national coverage, who cares if it’s singularly unimaginative? My response is that the skirmish won for publicity is a battle lost for NBC’s soul–ahem, I mean brand. The entire stunt paints NBC as a cynical manipulator of America’s poor and needy, eschewing substantive acts of service in favor of Good Samaritan skits prepackaged for the camera. The fact they’ve enlisted Amy Grant, the spokesmodel of shrinkwrapped Christian consumerism, only amplifies the effect.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no voice crying out in the wilderness here. But this is a gravely disheartening view of America to me. The greasy aftertaste of this campaign is that faith and compassion in
America can only be signified by randomly showering money and
brand name appliances on unsuspecting poor people who look good on
screen being effusively grateful. Perhaps it’s a testament to the marketing company’s professionalism that they so effectively segmented their subject and target audience. Notice they’re distributing fistfuls of cash to people not so needy that they don’t have a credit card and an eye for brands.

I guess good faith comes with a minimum requirement of purchasing power. 

2 thoughts on “99-Cent Salvation

  1. nellie lide

    I read that article this morning and I didn’t have the same reaction you did. I thought is was okay that NBC was trying new ways to get their message heard. The dollar bill thing seemed kind of silly – but it’s a good thing to help people out – if the methods they use aren’t quite right – the outcome is still good. If advertising through churches worked for Mel – why not NBC? and there aren’t enough shows you can sit down and watch with the whole family. My questions about shows like ‘3 wishes’ or ‘extreme makeover: home edition’ is this – how do the neighbors feel? – there must be a lot of jealousy stirred up by these shows.
    And Amy Grant is well-loved, not just a ‘spokesmodel of shrinkwrapped Christian consumerism’ (though I do love that phrase-it’s awesome).

  2. Chris

    I’ll at least give Mel the leeway of truly believing in his mission–in addition to being diabolically savvy in his technique. What NBC is doing through this publicity firm is cynical and not even remotely savvy.

    What bothers me is how much this whole affair cheapens the notion of faith and compassion–they become servants to the merchandizing… and for the worst pap of programming in the history of television. Yes, as you point out, the outcome for the lottery winner in each case is positive–or at least it appears to be. And I have no doubt that the producers doling out benevolance (brought to you by…) have a moment of warm hearted grace when they see the lives they’ve impacted.

    But, picking up on your point about the unintended consequences of good fortune–do you think for a moment that if a panel of psychologists suggested that it might be better for the network to exchange Extreme Makeovers for Modest Makeovers With a Little Less Publicity that the networks would give up their tv screen drama? Of course not. Because when it comes down to the bottom line, they’re not interested in the welfare of their scripted beneficiaries, they’re interested in ratings. Period. That’s their job.

    What disturbs me is not the pursuit of market share or ratings, but the apparent inability for businesses to draw the line, anywhere. When compassion becomes such cheap shill for ratings, one person’s gain is everyone’s loss. Could NBC have not invested the millions of dollars they’ll spend on crappy marketing for a little more creative R&D? Are they that lacking in imagination? Apparently.

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