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In these politically fraught times, Saturday Night Live has a knack for saying the wrong thing. Just a week after cast member Pete Davidson was forced to apologize to Texas state Representative-elect Dan Crenshaw, a Republican veteran who lost an eye in Afghanistan, “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost drew the ire of the left with snide jokes about Amazon and the cost of rent in New York City.
It also raised ethics questions about the comedy show’s recent business ventures into branded content.
Colin Jost is the son of a doctor and engineer, went to a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, went to Harvard, was hired at SNL immediately after graduating and has never had another adult job pic.twitter.com/iXMFEB4Oos— Jon Schwarz (@schwarz) November 18, 2018
Jost took an Amazon-friendly line during a “Weekend Update” segment about Amazon’s planned HQ2 campus in Queens. He painted New Yorkers as whining ingrates and praised Jeff Bezos for job creation in an unusually conservative punchline for the liberal-leaning late-night show.
“Only New Yorkers could complain about getting 25,000 new jobs,” Jost said before dismissing concerns about crowded subways and high rents. Both have been cornerstone issues for progressives in the city, including Cynthia Nixon during her failed gubernatorial bid.
The segment also mocked rural America. “Meanwhile, people in West Virginia are like, ‘Oh well, back to the mines,’” Jost joked. (In 2016, 11,000 of West Virginia’s 1.8 million residents worked in coal mines, roughly one-half of 1 percent.)
This wasn’t the only segment to feature Amazon in a favorable light during the episode. A sketch starring guest host Steve Carell as Bezos asserted that the choice to build HQ2 campuses near New York City and Washington, D.C., was a “troll” of Trump in response to the president’s criticism of the country.
The sketch paints Bezos as sympathetic and even heroic while dismissing valid criticisms of the company, including Amazon’s reliance on the U.S. Postal Service and his alleged use of the Washington Post as a company PR organ. While the bit focuses on Trump’s critiques of the company, there is no mention of challenges to the company from left-wing figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who have been far more vigorous.
Critics and audience members were surprised by SNL’s conservative and business-friendly stance in the episode. On Twitter, comedians and leftists came together to blast the segments.
Please don’t let Colin Jost smirking his way through a shitty Amazon joke cloud your opinion of IZOD. Quality clothing, bold design - all at a reasonable price.— stefan heck (@boring_as_heck) November 18, 2018
Is Colin Jost or anyone at SNL even remotely aware of how bad that Amazon shit was? Do they hear any of this or are they just rolling around on piles of money like Mr burns— Jake Flores (@feraljokes) November 19, 2018
Congrats to SNL for taking the “Amazon is good because their technocracy makes trump look poor” angle comedy needed— MillenialPinko (@millenialpinko) November 18, 2018
People on the internet disliking an SNL sketch is nothing new. But the way these segments advanced Bezos-friendly talking points while dismissing valid concerns of the people who constitute SNL’s core audience struck a number of observers as strange.
HEROIC MOMENTS IN COMEDY SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER— jack allison (@jackallisonLOL) November 18, 2018
"Only New Yorkers could complain about getting 25,000 new jobs. ... New York basically won the lottery." -Colin Jost, hero and genius, November 18, 2018 pic.twitter.com/0f6pgD4m1Z
I deleted my tweet wondering if SNL's Bezos sketch was sponcon RIGHT before NBC aired an Amazon commercial during the show. I owe my gut an apology— Megh Wright (@megh_wright) November 18, 2018
But were these Amazon segments branded content?
Saturday Night Live straddles a dangerous line. As the show attempts to maintain its position alongside The Daily Show as the most revered of U.S. political satire, SNL also regularly does branded segments. Companies like Verizon and Apple have contracted branded skits from SNL—Jost wrote the Verizon piece—so it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Amazon buying similar services, particularly during a week where it took so much bad press.
The first branded content spots on SNL ran in 2017. This choice was made because the show was enjoying its highest ratings in six years, thanks in no small part to criticism of Trump. Yes, the reemergence as the country’s go-to source for political satire also gave rise to its branded content. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see a conflict, as corporations are inherently political.
As you can tell from branded spots like these for Olive Garden and Burger King, Saturday Night Live’s sponsored content is generally only differentiated from the rest of the sketches by title cards at the end of segments.
Other sketches have varying degrees of disclosure, so it’s difficult to tell which segments are branded and which aren’t. Even if disclosure were more clear, the average viewer may be tuning in and out of the show.
Though there are no disclosures during “Weekend Update,” this season has also featured a number of seemingly gratuitous references to brands, like a Dunkin joke by Michael Che, which Colin Jost interrupted by saying, “They’re not a sponsor anymore.”
Whether the Amazon segments were sponsored or not, the Bezos-friendly bits reveal a problem for the show. The fact that SNL does branded content for other companies muddies the discourse.
Is a show that has built its political capital on being liberal siding with a mega-corporation against grassroots organizers and potentially displaced citizens because of the political views of the writers and/or creator Lorne Michaels? Is the show selling out its political independence in exchange for corporate support? These are two very different questions. It would be easier for journalists, critics, and other artists to situate the show’s point of view if it wasn’t doing any branded content at all.
Non-conventional relationships with advertisers are fraught, but they are a reality of media in 2018. Many websites, even some of the most progressive, have commissioned sponsored content in one form or another. Comedy sites like Funny or Die and late-night hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert have done branded spots. Digital media has had its reckoning around this issue, and companies like BuzzFeed have lost credibility due to poor protocols around sponsorship disclosure.
But just because everybody else is doing it doesn’t mean Saturday Night Live should. Branded content is antithetical to satire. If the show is going to live and die on Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression and Kat McKinnon’s shape-shifting into the political scapegoat of the week, then it shouldn’t be doing branded content—period.
As last week proved, corporate interests and political interests align very closely. If SNL wants to be taken seriously as a satire project, as it has so often been throughout its decades-long history, there ought to be a clear boundary between the jokes and the commercials that pay for them.
Representatives for Saturday Night Live did not speak on the record with the Daily Dot for this article.
Editor’s note: The author has written branded content for websites other than the Daily Dot.
Update 3:25pm CT, Nov. 26: A spokesperson for the Olive Garden tells the Daily Dot that it did not pay for the SNL sketch cited in this article, which was first reported on by Variety.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.