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How to Sell a Guilty Pleasure: The CW and Its Posters

September 20th, 2009 | Jonathan Gray

As I wait for more new shows this week to review, and as I find myself with little to say about the Emmy winners, largely because I agree with or can accept almost all victories (especially Michael Emerson. yay! About bloody time), let’s take a time out to look at some of the extratextuals surrounding the new shows:

I’ve been intrigued by the degree to which, in the wake of Gossip Girl’s past success, The CW has pounced upon the guilty pleasure label as being a great one with which to sell (and, of course, design) a show. Consider the following posters, for GG, Melrose Place, and The Beautiful Life, starting with GG. Analysis after the fold…
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The Gossip Girl ones are slightly older here, setting the bar. The network revels in the bad press it’s received, turning it into a badge of honor. Teens having sex or having just had sex aren’t just hinted at – indeed, both female leads look semi-orgasmic in two of the posters. The message is quite clear, “yeah, we’ll go there,” and it seems designed to speak both to a teen rebelliousness against adults telling them what they should do, and to GG’s older audiences shirking “quality television” declarations of what they should and shouldn’t be watching. There’s also a gendered element, as that which is a “parental nightmare,” a “nasty piece of work,” and “mindblowingly inappropriate” seems to be female pleasure. While it’s hard to gender the Parents Television Council as male – given how often “parents” is a synonym for “moms,” especially when values are concerned – it’s perhaps significant that the PTC’s criticism is attached to the less gendered of the posters, whereas the two orgasmic posters offer criticisms from two right-leaning, somewhat masculinist papers, the New York Post and the Boston Herald. The viewer is thus hailed as someone who is sick of being told what to do by patrician, paternal forces, and as someone who wants sexy television regardless of what’s being said about it.

Note that there is virtually no narrative or “story” to the posters – GG’s nominal interest in a pair of kids thrust into this upper class urban environment is completely absent. The network isn’t trying to sell story, character, or much else. It’s selling the show as sexed up, voyeuristic, and something that others will chastise you for watching. Guilty pleasure advertising.

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Taking several pages from that book is the advertising for The Beautiful Life. The singular palette of black, white, and red now suggests a certain style to the show too. Moreover, since the characters are looking directly at the camera, since they’re in black and white, and since the lighting is crafted meticulously, we’re obviously looking at fashion photography, so the posters give us a clear sense of the show’s premise. (Gossip Girl provided less, partly because those posters were released after the show was up and running).

And yet, once more, there is no sense of plot and little sense of character. One might recognize Sarah Paxton or Corbin Bleu from earlier projects, and project their star images onto their characters here. One might also glean that Ashley Medekwe’s character has a lot of confidence, perhaps even arrogance, while the others seem a little softer, but otherwise there’s little to be said about character. Instead, voyeurism is once more for sale front and center. Here, too, the viewer’s even being challenged on such voyeurism – the characters look straight at us and enquire “What are you looking at?” While on the surface a rebuke, since it’s spoken on an ad that clearly wants us to look at The Beautiful Life, the suggestion is actually that we shouldn’t feel at all embarrassed about looking. Look as much as you want to, it turns out to be saying. And so again we have ads that do not dispel the myth of guilty pleasures (after all, none of these ads need wrap themselves in the guise of the inappropriate), but rather invoke feelings of guilty viewing yet encourage the viewer to harness that guilt and make it pleasurable: “you probably shouldn’t be staring at these naked figures, but you know you want to,” these ones say.

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And finally we come to Melrose Place, which of course has the distinct advantage of being a re-envisioning of a show that is one of the more notorious guilty pleasure shows in television history. Thus it comes pre-wrapped, and all the posters need to do is remind us of the place (hence the pool, the palm trees, and the signature condo style), and ensure that we’ve got a modern 2009 spin, not just the guilty pleasure of the nineties. Toward this latter end, they do the job by draping themselves in voyeurism and by employing “mind-blowingly inappropriate” (as the PTC might say) language.

The picture on the left shows a man mauling a woman who looks at the camera with a come-hither invitation to join in or enjoy the view, and just in case we missed that last part, there’s another guy who is both watching them and watching us. It’s all very Eyes Wide Shut, aiming for weird erotic tension. And the bad pun in the text aims to shock, quite literally suggesting that there’s a whole lot of fucking going on in this show. The middle one has all three women rehearsing the Beautiful Life “what are you looking at?” question/invitation, it offers a revealing look at the breast of the woman in the foreground, and once more using the text to shock, it labels her (or all three of them) a “bitch.” And finally there’s the play on the ménage a trois in the poster on the right, with another guy in the poster who is being encouraged to stare, and with the viewer invited to do likewise. To add to the classiness, we can clearly see the blonde’s underwear and she’s perched on him as if ready for or engaged in the act.

Taking all three sets, personally I think the GG ones are quite fun. They’re not all that revealing, and I read them as engaging more in a playful attack on their critics (and a jujitsu one at that, using that criticism to sell) than truly reveling in the voyeurism. That said, knowing that GG is largely pitched at women and largely has a female audience helps take the edge off what otherwise might be a worrying level of voyeurism. By contrast, the MP posters are really going for a porn aesthetic. On one hand, as I said above, they do need to up the ante if they’re going to suggest that this version is even more risqué than the nineties one. But on the other hand, they seem to go well beyond guilty pleasure selling. Calling a woman a bitch is already not exactly a lovely thing, but when it’s one who is very nearly showing us her breast, the poster evokes images of the degradation of women in pornography that posits the woman actually likes being treated like dirt. And the other two just make me thoroughly uncomfortable too. Unlike GG here, I don’t have the assurance that this show is after women alone, and the pictures are significantly more revealing, enjoying their voyeurism without much of a sense of that being strategic or playful. So call me a prude, but I think MP’s posters are, like the show itself, pretty awful, illustrating the fine line between selling a guilty pleasure by playing at trashiness, and actual trashiness. GG, I’d pose, is ironically trashy; MP is trashy.

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  1. September 23rd, 2009 at 07:46 | #1

    Most hilariously: add one accent to the e at the end of ‘Menage a Tues’ and it reads ‘Mix of the Dead.’ Nice work.

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