The Good, The Bad, and The “Ugly Betty”

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By Gordon Chu | Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I admit it. I have grown to like ABC’s “Ugly Betty”. In fact, it now has its own time slot on my DVR priority list. Seeing those trademark braces and bad bangs just brings a smile to my face. I’m not the only person who tunes in every week – “Ugly Betty” has an extraordinary fan-base and is a huge hit in the United States. It consistently ranks in the Top 10 Nielsen ratings in a very competitive Thursday primetime line-up. The show’s format and concept was adopted from the Columbian phenomenon – “Betty La Fea” (“Betty the Ugly One”) and can pretty much be found in one form of incarnation on all four corners of the world. Some good, some bad, but all distinctly “Betty”.

China is no exception – its version is suitably titled “Ugly Wudi”. And yes, it’s still the classic fish-out-of-water story about a girl trying to make her way in life and her budding career. And yes, there are the sub-plots of family issues, Dove soap, work scandals, Dove soap, inner-work romance, and Dove soap. Did I mention Dove soap? There’s no mystery Unilever is the main brand sponsor for “Ugly Wudi” – in fact, they’ve taken product placement and brand integration to a whole new level of its own. The Dove product is inter-woven into the story itself (they work in an ad agency) and the in-your-face product placement in the foreground, the background, and even stitched in the clothes is a strong reminder that “Ugly Wudi” is just one mega-marketing vehicle.

Still, despite the aggressive product placement in “Ugly Wudi”, the show is an incredible success and is now going into its third season. In the US, brand integration in TV programs is not a novel idea; however, this in-your-face tactic would most likely be classified under the “tacky” bucket. So I ask, why is this strategy successful in China? When is “enough” just “too much”?

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