Live from New York, it’s … an ad for Zillow?

March 31st, 2021

As a first-time homeowner who is also in his 30s, I can relate to the rush of browsing real estate listings, as depicted in a recent Saturday Night Live Zillow commercial parody. For me, it was a built-in bookshelf that went from the floor [makes ill-advised attempt at a sultry voice] all the way to the ceiling.

But watching the funny sketch, which has more than 5 million views on YouTube, I also had to wonder: Is this an ad for Zillow?

Always thinking someone is trying to sell you something is one of the side effects of working at TINA.org, which, if you’re new to the site, is short for truthinadvertising.org. But in fact I had reason to be skeptical.

In April 2016, NBC announced that it would begin airing “branded content” during its SNL broadcast in an effort to cut down on commercials between sketches. Since then, there have been many brand-centric sketches that would appear to pass the smell test for what might be considered a sponsored sketch (perhaps excluding those that are overly hostile to the brand – see Sara Lee).

One of the first was a Dunkin’ Donuts skit that aired in December 2016. It promoted several of the coffee chain’s products while also taking jabs at its customers – much in the same way the Zillow sketch does – and seemed like a ringer for a sponsored sketch. But SNL said the Dunkin’ Donuts sketch was not branded content. And the same is true for the Zillow sketch, according to the real estate listings website.

“None of us knew,” a Zillow spokeswoman told me. “It was a pleasant surprise.”

I asked the material connection question usually reserved for brands and influencers, i.e., does any relationship exist between Zillow and NBC or SNL that should have been disclosed in the sketch? She said Zillow has no connection to NBC or SNL.

This was a lot more than NBC offered in response to a request for comment for this blog. NBC declined to talk on the record with regard to whether the Zillow sketch (among four others including one called Pelotaunt and another called The Job Interview, in which 11 brands are mentioned) was branded content. And for the second time in five years, NBC failed to provide an answer to a TINA.org reporter’s question regarding how consumers are supposed to tell which sketches are sponsored and which aren’t.

Because consumers have a right to know.

According to an opinion piece on the internet culture site the Daily Dot, “Saturday Night Live’s sponsored content is generally only differentiated from the rest of the sketches by title cards at the end of segments.” The article cites an Olive Garden sketch, which closes on a title card. But an update at the end of the piece notes that an Olive Garden spokesperson told the Daily Dot that it did not actually pay for the SNL sketch. Which goes to show that even those who have dug into SNL’s sponsored sketches have struggled to sort it all out. What chance does the average SNL viewer have?

Then there’s the larger question – which is the one I’ve been grappling with as someone who has watched SNL for more than half his life – of whether there’s a place for branded content in satire. How do you make fun of a brand that is paying you to make fun of it? It would be like roasting The Rock. Do you really want to risk pissing off The Rock?

Revelations in an SNL head writer’s newish memoir show how advertisers have already wielded their power to foster more business-friendly (and less funny) jokes about them during the Weekend Update news segment of the show. Why shouldn’t they hold the same influence over sketches?

I would like to end on a positive note. I was able to make my bookshelf fantasy a reality. Here it is in all its floor-to-ceiling, built-in glory. Now I just need the books.

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About the Author

Jason Bagley, writer at TINA.org, is still romantic about journalism and believes in its power to educate and inform.



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