Breaking the Fifth Wall: What Dunder Mifflin Teaches Us About Marketing and the Human Psyche

If you haven’t seen an episode of NBC’s long-running comedic hit, The Office, you’ve probably at least heard of it. While telling the tale of a paper company locked in a constant battle against, one: the shrinking demand for paper, and two, the bottom barrel prices of its bigger competitors, The Office is actually quite funny. Originally conceived by British comedian Ricky Gervais, it became a hit in the UK before the US adaptation made Michael Scott (Steve Carrel) and Dunder Mifflin household names. While the show is funny, what made it unique was it’s constant “breaking of the fourth wall,” a technique thought too taboo for primetime TV, or at least prime-time fiction. Reality shows had done a version of this, but that’s how they’re formatted. Fiction is different, it is supposed to be observed, and not interacted with.

On The Office, characters send quick glances directly to the camera and subsequently to the viewer. They also speak directly to the camera, “confessional” style. Something that all people share is a need to be “on the inside.” They want to be included, sit at the cool kids’ table, get VIP access; they want the inside track. Having characters speak directly to viewers gave them that sense, and now tons of shows do the exact same thing. Another great TV comedy is Community, which in a recent episode discussed how Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Francis Ford Copolla’s epic Apocalypse Now, was actually a better movie than Apocalypse Now. What Community was trying to say is that while people like the end product, be it a movie or a pencil, they like to know who made the pencil and what they went through to make it.

So where does a fictional company like Dunder Mifflin go once its show has broken the fourth wall? Well, it breaks the fifth wall and becomes a real paper company. Ironically, the fictional company’s biggest competitor, Staples, has now, in real life, bought the rights to the Dunder Mifflin name to help sell paper on their website. In a race to the bottom of paper prices, they intend on selling paper of the same quality as their competitors for higher prices, simply because it has the name of a fictional paper company on it. However, Dunder Mifflin is no longer a fictional company. No it does not have Michael Scott and his antics, but it does have real employees with a real product. Folks can take care of their paper needs with boxes labeled with all the best catch phrases from the show.

What does this reverse product placement tell us about ourselves? That’s another topic for another blog post, but in short, it tells us that people will spend more on a product that means something to them. This type of sentiment is hard to put a number value on, but is nothing to be scoffed at. If you let your customers in, and provide them with something that they feel they have ownership over, great things can happen. Something else to take away is to not let fear stop you. Doing what is taboo and doing what could “never work” is exactly what needs to be done to innovate and stand out. Breaking the 4th wall was a risky move but it paid off in spades, and most importantly, The Office was first to do it.

Reverse product placement is nothing new; many brands have tried this before with mixed success. What the real life paper company should have learned from the fictional one is not to wait. The Office has been on a decline for the past few seasons and no longer has its centerpiece, Steve Carrel. This move probably would have been timelier years ago when the show was at its peak of popularity. Whether you’re creating paper or a corporate video, don’t be afraid to do it with style and to stand outside of the norm. Skillman Video Group provides innovation for all of its clients. We will happily help you tackle taboos, break down walls, or at the very least, make a great video.