Is Conan O’Brien a Corporate Shill?

We saw Prime Minster John Key on David Letterman’s show pushing Cinnabon while reading the Top Ten List. But what happens if you’re a world leader who appears on a late night program and you don’t even have a choice? Take Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s September 28, 2009 appearance on The Tonight Show. The production team grabbed a clip and decided to add subtitles featuring Subway products. Indeed, Conan O’Brien’s zeal for Subway is so strong that he interrupts jockey Joe Talamo, which you can see at the 0:47 mark. Does Conan just like Subway sandwiches or does he have a sponsor to appease?

This is the third video in the “corporate shill” series, which follows Jay Leno and David Letterman. In deciding whether or not Conan O’Brien fits the shilling bill, you may want to ask why O’Brien makes reference to two recent consumer events (The Gap founder dying and The Wizard of Oz DVD coming out this week) two nights in a row.


  1. Could it be that pop culture is so pervasive that this is how we talk? Also, consider that O’Brien has a team of writers who are searching headlines and sites for material that will resonate with the broadest and most general audience. So, while I see your point–taken to heart, it is–I must profess that it’s a coincidence.

    To keep it interesting, go back and find old ’80s monologues and see how those fare? Letterman’s and maybe Carson’s? And then compare Late Night O’Brien with Tonight Show O’Brien. Are the references the same or was there a drastic change?

  2. You act like you’re surprised that these shows have lots of product placement. I mean, seriously, this is all advertisers have left now that everyone watches on Hulu or has Tivo or whatever.

  3. Kyle W.: Then explain to me Conan’s incongruous interruption of the jockey to mime eating a Subway sandwich. That’s not coincidental. Subway regularly conducts product placement on NBC.

    Eric: The problem is that guys like Kyle W. begin to believe that product placement is “coincidental.” Thus, it’s necessary to point these things out. In this case, you have the Gap and the Wizard of Oz DVD two nights in a row. Why must we tacitly accept all this or pretend that it doesn’t happen? Why do we buy Tina Fey’s lie that the McFlurry isn’t product placement on 30 Rock?

    Shane: No. Well, mostly no.

  4. Conan is usually much more upfront about his product placement. They had that “Please Blow Up My Car” and that was definitely product placement. A lot of the examples in the video are probably coincidences though. Conan probably wouldn’t mind getting paid for them, but that’s not why they’re telling the jokes. On one of the first shows, for example, he happened to mention Choco Tacos as part of a joke. Later, the people that make them sent a case of them to the studio as a thank you gift, but Conan didn’t know that was coming. He was just making comedy. Conan should be allowed to make references to things that are part of everyone’s lives without being labeled as a “corporate shill.”

  5. I think the point being missed here is that all of them work for corporate-owned networks that are in return sponsored by corporate-owned products. To call them corporate shills is slightly misleading since they don’t pretend to be otherwise nor could they. It’s interesting but a non-story nonetheless.

  6. all good points. pop culture is pervasive, makes the jokes more tangible to the consuming viewers. still, though, they’re not writing heady jokes devoid of product references, which, i’m sure, they were doing in their stand-up days. it’s mostly ‘in the news’ type stuff, current events. but the prevalence of taco bell, doritos, gap, what have you at nbc & cbs & abc is most likely due to the suits saying work this in. do you think these people are this unfunny? comedy for the masses works on major networks. i prefer craig’s monologues because there’s a bit of storytelling in them. i can’t remember if there’s a lot of product name-dropping on the late late show; i’m sure there is, but it has more of a stand-up vibe.

  7. I think the rest of the comments sum it up nicely, Ed. It’s a non-story. If by “corporate shill”, you mean someone who blatantly, and with total disregard to the aesthetics of their art, hock an item for money, then yes, they are all shills. Cause who else is going to give them enough capital to run the show? The Onion would be a good one to study here. This all reminds me of D.F. Wallace, though. O’Brien, especially. The way he tries–or tried–to subvert the need to shill by acting corny, employing irony and such. But now it’s old hat and boring.

    What’s most interesting to me out of all this is how adept young people are to sussing this out. They don’t need older people to explain it anymore. They’ve reached a saturation point. I teach freshman comp. at a state school, and my students are well past the need for decodifying rhetorical stances in Pepsi ads and the like. Not that there isn’t strata to unearth with them. Teaching them subtleties and modes of composition that are straightforward. Whatever. I feel like I am typing into the aether here. Hope all is well with whomever reads this.

  8. I don’t get all the fuss about Conan, Dave, and Jay, and all the others being corporate shills. That’s the whole point of all these shows anyway. Every guest is there specifically to promote their latest book, show, movie or cause. In-between whoring guests we get actual commercials hocking real goods. Why would the hosts be any different?

    It’s certainly no different than it ever has been for the television industry. Advertisers pay for the shows, so if you don’t like it I guess you’ll have to find entertainment where they charge admission.

  9. Your video doesn’t even scratch the surface on how Conan’s show has changed over the years (Considering “Tonight” and “Late Night” one in the same) – I mean, it’s not unusual at all for him to have an entire 3-minute or so long sketch devoted to a sponsor, like a month or so ago when he and Andy knocked down an arrangement of Domino’s employees, or the other night when he decided to interview the Intel developer who invented USB. It does seem silly to point out how commercial these shows are getting since their second halves have always been commercials anyway – but there is something depressing about the fact that even the straight-ahead comedy portions are starting in a marketing department before the writers/performers are then charged with making something funny/watchable out of it.

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