JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

“Don’t just watch It, live it:”
technology, corporate partnerships,
and The Hills

by Elizabeth Affuso

The MTV reality program The Hills, now in its fifth season, follows protagonist Lauren Conrad and her circle of friends around their day-to-day life to create a portrait of the “real” lives of young, attractive, and affluent women in Los Angeles.[1][open endnotes in new window] The plot lines of the show traffic in the familiar female melodrama of nighttime soaps, and while this drama is certainly entertaining, it functions as only one part of the aspirational lifestyle brand that is The Hills. Through a series of corporate partnerships with companies such as Bolthouse Productions, Epic Records, Teen Vogue, and by extension their parent corporations SBE Entertainment, Sony BMG, and Condé Nast respectively, the narrative of The Hills exists to promote these companies products, arguably solely to promote these products. While product placement is a mainstay of reality television, The Hills makes a point of differentiating itself from the dominant model by integrating it seamlessly into the narrative by positioning Lauren and her friends as employees of these companies, while simultaneously covering up the fact that their non-work entertainment is also provided by arms of these same entities. This method sets up the show as a comprehensive lifestyle brand for viewers and the show enables participation by labeling all of its locations onscreen, so viewers can easily tell where the women are eating, shopping, or partying, providing all the information necessary to replicate this experience if desired.

For viewers who want more or can’t visit the actual locations, The Hills also features a slew of web-based components, such as The Hills: Live After the Show, IAmOnMTV.com and most importantly Virtual Hills on MTV’s VMTV platform, sponsored by AT&T. With its “don’t just watch it, live it” slogan Virtual Hills presents a virtual version of The Hills locations and enables viewers to create an avatar, interact with other viewers, the cast itself, and purchase products while pretending to live as Lauren and her friends do. Using the Virtual Hills allows viewers to experience a world that is most likely out of their reach geographically, physically, and financially without ever leaving their own home. Now instead of encouraging you to buy a product that will give you a glimpse of the lifestyle, MTV is promoting buying the whole lifestyle, albeit in a digital way.

Through close analysis of the show and its virtual components, this paper will examine in detail the lifestyle brand that is The Hills, while considering questions of how new technology complicates theories of product placement, branding, reality television, and reality itself. By looking at how these elements work together to create an aspirational image for young women today this paper aims to analyze how the introduction of new technologies, like Virtual Hills, alters how these women are constructed as consumers of both products and images.

The Hills as lifestyle brand

The Hills started airing on MTV in the summer of 2006 as a spin-off of MTV’s reality series Laguna Beach: The Real O.C., and is currently in its fifth season. The Hills is centered around a former character on Laguna Beach, Lauren Conrad, who has graduated from high school and left Orange County to live in Los Angeles and attend fashion school. Instead of the large cast of characters, both male and female featured on Laguna Beach, The Hills is centered on four young women, the aforementioned Lauren, her ex-best friend Heidi Montag, her roommate Audrina Patridge, and her coworker Whitney Port. Men are on the show primarily as love interests that come between the girls, but not as protagonists in their own right. The shows focus on female relationships prompted New York Times television critic Virginia Heffernan to write,

The Hills…is more convincing than Friends and just about any other comedy about female relationships because — as anyone who has ever been a young woman knows — undying friendships die.”[2]

This code of realism that Heffernan points to may be one of the major reasons for the shows huge success with young women. It is number one in its time period for woman 12-24 and the show routinely outperforms fictional counterparts, such as Gossip Girl, that are aiming for the same audience.[3] Viewership is only growing with the Hollywood Reporter reporting 4.8 million viewers, the shows highest number ever for the Season 3 Premiere episode and 1.8 million streams of the episode in one day on mtv.com, up 29% from the previous season, reflecting the importance of new media technologies in the success of the program.[4] While, the presumed core audience for teen shows has always been young woman, it needs to be noted that this demographic is also crucial for advertisers as young woman are thought to be the most avid consumers of products. This is especially important to think about with regard to the corporate interests that have attached themselves to this show and why this sort of partnership is so common in the teen television arena, not just on MTV, but on other networks as well, for example J. Crew’s partnership with Dawson’s Creek or the showcase of music featured at the end of an episode of The O.C.[5] By fully integrating the corporate partnerships into the show’s narrative, viewers are not required to watch traditional advertisements, but rather absorb these products as part of the shows lifestyle branding, something that is increasingly important with the rise of viewership on DVRs, the internet, and DVD where traditional advertising is eliminated. Through these partnerships, The Hills creates a world that is less about traditional forms of product placement and more about constructing a lifestyle brand that shows viewers how to be young, beautiful, and successful through certain types of consumerism positioned around the brands that the show is partnered with.

While, both The Hills and Laguna Beach are ostensibly reality programs, they are seen as a new kind of reality, programs that are narrative based and are cast to appear like the fiction dramas that the shows are an outgrowth of. MTV even tries to distance itself from the term reality by calling these shows “unscripted series.” Much has been made of whether these shows are in fact to some extent scripted, which seems to be true since in England the show features a disclaimer that parts may be constructed.[6] The documentary component makes the corporate partnerships on the show even stranger because instead of employing traditional kinds of reality TV product placement, such as the Levi’s challenge on Project Runway or the Travelocity gnomes on The Amazing Race, The Hills use of product placement is complicated by the fact that so much of the girls allegedly “real” world is determined by the partnerships that it has, so that every location that they go to has been scouted and selected, every item of clothing they wear chosen, and their careers advanced to suit the needs of the brand that is being created.

This concept is made infinitely problematic by the fact that the show claims to be real, to be a documentary of what the lives of young women in Los Angeles are really like and not the construction that we assume to be an integral part of fictionalized television with its entirely built world. Formally this aesthetic of realism is enhanced by the lack of confessional that is so common on reality TV and by the shows decision to name and label every location. In place of a confessional the show gives Lauren a voiceover narration to transition from scene to scene, aligning her with the protagonists of fiction shows and allowing her to provide some introspective refection on what is happening onscreen. Topically, the women deal with concerns common to other women their age, such as work, friend, and relationship problems and how to negotiate being on your own for the first time. This regular girl narrative is one that the show is aggressively maintaining even now that the cast is famous and constantly scrutinized by the tabloid press and the paparazzi.

Role of corporate partnerships

Within this constructed world, the show features many elements of product placement that are consistent with that of other MTV programs, however in addition to the MTV connection, the show has had three main corporate partnerships — Teen Vogue, Bolthouse Productions, and Epic Records. These companies are positioned in the frame of the show as the girls places of employment, but half the shows screen time is given over to showcasing these companies daily activities and more importantly their output. Teen Vogue gets to put its image on display throughout and is responsible for some if not all of the girls look. For example in City of Angels — the show’s companion book — there is an anecdote about Teen Vogue sending both Lauren and Whitney to get their hair changed so that it is more in the style of the magazine. In this story Whitney and Lauren go to the Neil George Salon because a Teen Vogue editor has told Whitney that her “hair was overprocessed and too surfer girl” and Lauren that hers “was too Orange County.”[7] Teen Vogue is also shown styling the girls clothes in order to keep them consistent with their brand, saying that the Teen Vogue look is “all about the mix” and showing the girls — and by extension viewers — how this look is achieved. Within this context, Lauren herself is treading a fine line between regular girl intern and star subject having appeared on the cover of Teen Vogue and in its pages as well as in other comparable publications like Seventeen and Cosmogirl!, indicative of her appeal to the teen market that both the show and the magazine are pitched at.

In the third season, Whitney and Lauren left Teen Vogue amid rumors that the magazine was upset about the girls partying and did not believe that it reflected the image they wanted to be associated with.[8] They have now started working at the fashion publicity company People’s Revolution, which will allow for the show to continue to feature both established and up and coming fashion designers. The partnership with People’s Revolution also allows for the show to shoot more segments in New York and raises the possibility for a spin-off series for Whitney to be set in the world of New York fashion, which would create many other corporate partnership possibilities for The Hills brand.[9]

Heidi’s employer, Bolthouse Productions gets exposure for their clubs Area, Hyde, and S Bar because these venues are the nightlife destinations of choice for Lauren and her friends. The cast also frequently dines at Katsuya and the Abbey, which are both owned by SBE and also at the restaurants and clubs owned by the Dolce Group, such as Ketchup, Bella, Les Deux, and Geisha House among others. The Dolce Group is connected to Bolthouse through some of its investors, most specifically actor Danny Masterson who hosts a weekly radio show with Brent Bolthouse. In addition, both SBE-Bolthouse and Dolce have a major financial stake in the ongoing revival of Hollywood Boulevard, so these companies have a serious interest in making this area look like a destination. MTV furthered this re-imaging of Hollywood by setting its most recent season of The Real World in this area as well. Through the constant coverage of the cast both on the show and in the pages of tabloids these venues are continually publicized through this partnership and have become household names for millions of viewers who will most likely never frequent these hotspots and making Brent Bolthouse the most famous club promoter in Hollywood in the process.

The third major corporate partnership is with Epic Records a subsidiary of Sony BMG, where Audrina works in the context of the show. Epic stands to gain the most financially from its corporate partnership with The Hills and its larger partnership with MTV more generally. The label released The Hills: Original Soundtrack in 2007 featuring the work of a number of musicians, such as Natasha Bedingfield and Augustana who are signed to Sony or its subsidiaries. The show also often features the girls going out on the town to the aforementioned clubs with Epic recording artists who happen to be visiting and sometimes sets them up as love interests for the women. The Hills, like many MTV programs, is wall-to-wall music and provides a venue for showcasing both known and unknown musical talent. In the third and forth seasons of the show, the title and artist of each of the songs on the show get flashed onscreen in the style of a music video while they play, encouraging viewers to head over to MTV.com to find out more. This partnership with Sony BMG reflects changes that the music industry has had to make as a result of the digital revolution, as Rob Stringer CEO of Song BMG UK puts it:

"We have to think that the principles of the record company in the old-fashioned sense are becoming dated now. Until five or six years ago the music industry was self-sufficient and there wasn't much interest in connecting the dots of the other areas of the media."

He is referring to the golden years when the CD was king. With piracy and illegal downloading still rife and CD sales decreasingly valuable, "we have to use any platform we can to get our music across to people. Circumstances have changed.[10]

The Hills is conscious of these new trends and encourages multi-tasking while viewing, making it possible for viewers to be as focused on clicking over to the music as they are on watching the show. In fact the show seems to assume that its core base of viewers has easy access to the Internet while viewing. The tech savvy viewers that MTV is so aggressively courting are encouraged by MTV in advertising throughout the show to be utilizing the web-based components to enhance their viewing experience, often suggesting that fans who don’t participate are having an incomplete viewing experience.

vHills and MTV’s move into virtual lifestyle branding

Corporate partnerships extend into the shows virtual world with sponsorship by AT&T and special events such as the M by Mariah Carey Ford Models Virtual Model Search.[11] Through its virtual components, the show allows viewers regardless of their location a chance to experience what life in the Los Angeles of The Hills is really like. The Virtual Hills is a Second Life-esque virtual world where users create an avatar and are able to design their own clothes, dress the stars, and interact with a virtual version of The Hills world. The vHills platform also provides an important outlet for Lauren’s other endeavors most notably her own fashion line. According to the press release for her line:

"Her fashion has inspired a generation of young viewers with its California chic look of flirty dresses and trendy tops usually complemented with a signature headband. Now legions of young women can emulate Lauren Conrad's fresh style in the real world and online. MTV Networks and Lauren Conrad — the star of MTV's popular series The Hills — today announce the first-ever celebrity-inspired digital fashion line to be introduced in the Virtual Hills virtual world. In addition, Lauren will develop a real-world fashion line that will be available in high-end boutiques, retail stores and online later this fall."[12]

This real and virtual line makes it possible to own all the components of the Lauren Conrad look or just pretend that you do if you don’t have the financial ability to obtain the real thing, which most people don’t as her line is priced at the higher end of the retail spectrum with prices starting at sixty dollars for a belt and going up to two hundred and twenty-five dollars for a dress.[13] The Virtual Hills also provides a forum for those viewers who are not depicted in the world of the show, so that while there are no non-white characters in the series, avatars can be created in all different races, allowing those who are visually and aurally excluded from the series to have a place in the world. This digital forum also addresses itself to the issues of class that are so excluded from the show — a departure from the fictional teen television programs that it is based on, which typically feature some sort of class conflict at their core.[14] With the advent of this new digital world, MTV seems to be suggesting that everyone can afford this lifestyle, and pretend to live it.

In addition, MTV has launched a new digital component this year, IAmOnMTV.com, which allows users to chat with the stars and features an interface similar to other social networking sites, such as thumbnail photos of friends and a chat function, thereby allowing viewers to pretend that they are connected socially to the girls through a vast virtual network. This connectivity allows viewers access to the stars, enhancing their real girl appeal, while simultaneously playing into the mythology of social networking sites, which allow users to believe that your virtual friends are the same as your real friends. Virtual MTV and the vHills provide viewers with an opportunity to pretend to be like the characters on the show, but ultimately this whole world is fake and it only allows viewers to pretend that they live in something that is “real” and that contains elements of human interaction.

Denial of celebrity

This focus on stars being real can be seen as an outgrowth of a shift in discourse around celebrity that has occurred in the past couple of years with reality show stars becoming hugely famous and a promotion of the regular qualities of stars with columns like US Weekly’s “Stars Are Just Like Us.” The Hills is one example of a show that constructs its characters, as girls who are just like us, but better due to the physical and material access they have been given. While the cast is famous in the media at large, within the context of the show their fame is never acknowledged, positioning the women instead as slightly better-off regular girls with everyday problems.

MTV and the shows producers actively avoid discussing any of the celebrity-oriented elements of the girls lives on the show, such as drug use, sex tapes, or plastic surgery, in order to maintain their appeal as real people. These elements of the girls lives appear constantly in the tabloid media, but are only alluded to on the show. This positioning of the characters as normal has become increasingly hard to buy into as they have become famous in their own right and this fame ends up affecting the pleasure of the show for the viewer because it is now possible to know almost all of the important plot points of an episode in advance of its airing just by looking at the covers of gossip magazines. It has also become increasingly hard for the show to maintain this illusion of normality, with creator Adam DiVello telling Entertainment Weekly that they have had to create a deal with the paparazzi in order to keep them out of shots. In the same article executive producer Liz Gately links the appeal of the show to its lack of emphasis on fame saying,

“We give the people the access that they’re not getting in the tabloids. They’re getting their private life.”[15]

This idea that what viewers are really getting is the private lives of the girls is of course an illusion that is carefully constructed, just as the girls work lives are since we never see Lauren working on her clothing line or performing as the spokeswoman for Avon’s Mark cosmetics line, jobs that are important parts of her income and image. In fact this year Lauren was named Number 97 on Forbes Celebrity Top 100 List suggesting that the Lauren Conrad brand is much bigger than the regular girl appeal that the show so aggressively constructs.[16] Heidi and Spencer the most notorious tabloid stars of the show also spend much of their time making promotional appearances at nightclubs and working on Heidi’s music career, neither of which have any presence within the story line of the show.

Viewers of reality seem to be aware that what they’re watching is not real and yet that doesn’t seem to prevent the shows from being successful, and with vHills,MTV seems to be suggesting that the distinction between real and fake does not matter. In doing so, the show creates an image of reality that is a sort of enhanced version of the real, in much the same way that Lauren and her friends can be viewed. By adding the corporate partnership element, the show is also creating a forum where companies in some way invested financially or strategically in keeping a certain idea of cool alive can push their agenda. With the virtual component MTV allows viewers who would never be able to live the lifestyle the show and its partners are endorsing to pretend that they can, thereby keeping up the mythologies associated with youth, celebrity, Hollywood, and consumer culture.

Notes

1. An earlier version of this paper was presented at Console-ing Passions in Santa Barbara, CA, April 2008. Denise Mann, Suzanne Scott, and Kate Fortmueller gave valuable feedback over the course of revisions.

2. Virginia Heffernan, “It’s Lauren vs. Heidi in the Battle of the Ex-BFFs,” The New York Times, August 13, 2007.

3. Gossip Girl’s Season 1 Finale, one of its highest rated episodes, posted 3 million viewers, see James Hibberd, “Gossip Takes Big Gain,” Hollywood Reporter, May 21, 2008. Unlike MTV, The CW has taken aim at viewers who stream or download episodes even going so far as to pull episodes from its website and itunes in the second half of Season 1, for a report on this see: Andrew Wallenstein, “Gossip Stream Plugged,” Hollywood Reporter, April 18-20, 2008.

4. Kimberly Nordyke, “Hills Thrills with Record Viewership,” Hollywood Reporter. March 27, 2008.

5. For a discussion of this on Dawson’s Creek see: Will Brooker, “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence, and Television Overflow,” in The Television Studies Reader, ed. Robert C. Allen and Annette Hill (London: Routledge, 2004), 569-580.

6. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly Lauren and series creator Adam DiVello admitted to some re-shooting, with DiVello stating, “ If we lose something, or there’s no audio and we need them to talk about something [again], we’ll ask them to talk about it. Anyone that’s making a reality television show that tells you they aren’t doing [the same thing] is probably lying.” In Tim Stack, “They Shoot. She Scores.,” Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 2008. 31. The awkwardness that comes out of these re-shoots has led to much speculation about how much of the show is scripted, which MTV continues to deny.

7. Andrew Perry, The Hills: City of Angels (New York: MTV Books, 2006), 31.

8. “Exclusive: Teen Vogue on Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port: ‘It was Time for Them to Move On’,” US Magazine, February 8, 2008.

9. Christina Kinon, “The Hills Whitney Port lands job in New York,” New York Daily News, August 27, 2008.

10. Ian Burrell, “It’s More Than Rock’n’Roll,” The Independent, March 6, 2006.

11. The M by Mariah Carey Ford Models Virtual Model Search is a contest that allows users to create an avatar and win a virtual modeling contest to be the new face of vHills.

12. “MTV Teams Up with Lauren Conrad to Produce First Ever Virtual and Real World Fashion Line,” P.R. Newswire, March 6, 2007.

13. For a closer look at Lauren Conrad’s entire line, go to
http://laurenconrad.seenon.com/

14. Teen television shows typically feature a protagonist who provides an in text critique of the wealth that is depicted onscreen, examples of this include Brandon and Brenda Walsh on FOX’s Beverly Hills 90210, Ryan on FOX’s The O.C., and Dan and Jenny Humphrey on The CW’s Gossip Girl.

15. Tim Stack, “They Shoot. She Scores.,” Entertainment Weekly, August 8, 2008. 31.

16. In its June 11, 2008 issue, Forbes estimated Lauren’s income as 1.5 Million and on August 22, 2008 In Touch Weekly reported that Lauren’s income for The Hills season 4 was $75,000 per episode, with Spencer and Heidi making $65,000 per episode each, Audrina $35,000 per episode, and Whitney $20,000 per episode. As of this writing, MTV has not confirmed the validity of these amounts.


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