Saturday, July 13, 2024

Seinfeld’s spoof on Kellogg: Brand theft or celebrity endorsement?

A minor buzz arose this week over the major issue of whether AI chatbots had evolved a sense of humour. Maybe we’ll know once AI bots get to have the last laugh. For now, another vital question should strike us: Have corporations evolved one? The ribs they tickle are usually by the ad agencies they hire. A test case popped into view this month with the Netflix release of comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s Unfrosted, a spoof on Kellogg-versus-Post rivalry over breakfast cereals and other satisfiers of taste-buds in America. 

In telling its tale—as told to a kid, cleverly—of the amazing success of Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts, this movie gleefully uses the company’s brands and mascots to make bellies wobble with laughter for a change. It tells us about this hot innovation of a flat pastry that pops out of a toaster with such wry distortion that one would have to be an AI bot to take it for real. 

Still, such creative liberty is rarely taken by filmmakers in India. Rajesh Krishnan’s comedy Crew, for example, tactfully uses Kohinoor Airlines as a stand-in for Kingfisher, though with winks and nudges thrown in (like a fictional owner called Vijay Walia). Spoofing a company has long been taboo in showbiz for an obvious reason: There may be legal hell to pay for brand theft, etc. But what’s going on in America? Have businesses begun to see the funny side of what they do?

Seinfeld’s latest film did not pioneer this new genre of brand parodies. Just last year, movie halls were left in splits by Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which got laughs at this doll’s expense. This film had the approval of the brand’s owner Mattel, though, and might even have served as a subtle ad. According to Seinfeld, Unfrosted is “the opposite.” 

In his words from a recent interview: “Barbie is made by Mattel. Kellogg had no idea and would never allow us to do anything like this. And if we don’t get sued, it’ll be a miracle. We thought that’d be phenomenal publicity, if we do get sued. I mean, walking in court with lawyers to defend myself that I made fun of the Pop-Tart in a way that’s inappropriate… I’d love that trial.” 

Adding a dash of intrigue to the film’s context, Kellogg in the US split last October into Kellanova and W.K. Kellogg Company. The former put out a statement calling the movie “farce not fact,” adding for good measure that it’s “a fictional account of Pop-Tarts’ history and is meant for entertainment purposes.” Seinfeld would probably be disposed to agree. Asked about the research that went into the movie, he replied, “There was no desire to get anything right, we just wanted to make it.”

So, did Seinfeld get away with brand infringement? This is where the plot thickens. Pleased by the buzz, perhaps, Pop-Tarts’ owner Kellanova leapt to join the joke. It ran a spoofy two-minute video of its own to wag a finger at Seinfeld for brand theft as funnily as it could. It even launched limited-pack Tart-Pops, picking up the movie’s version of why it sold like hot cakes: The clunky name Trat-Pop was mistakenly read out backwards on TV as “Pop-Tart,” which proved far catchier than its archrival’s fuddy-duddy Country Squares. 

So, as it turns out in the movie, all the mutual espionage over the recipe, mounted merrily on the scale of a space race, amounts to zilch in the face of an ultimate arbiter: Human error. It’s a fun watch. So, are “grrr-reat” brands developing a funny bone? Are they being advised by image managers to laugh along if the joke’s on them? Or is there something else to be read in the goofy grin of Seinfeld’s open dare? Don’t ask a chatbot.

#Seinfelds #spoof #Kellogg #Brand #theft #celebrity #endorsement

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