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How Netflix turned an absurd reality show prop into serious branding

The gold and silver goblets have become the true stars of Netflix dating shows like ‘The Ultimatum.’

How Netflix turned an absurd reality show prop into serious branding
[Images: Netflix]

“Branded” is a new weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.

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Reality-show twists can be predictable: someone will betray someone else; someone will get into a shouting match or a slap fight; someone will hook up. But recently the Netflix series The Ultimatum has offered a genuinely novel subplot: What’s up with all those silver goblets? The answer may be one of the most subtly effective branding gambits of the year.   

[Photo: Netflix]
For those unfamiliar, The Ultimatum involves six couples deciding whether to get married by spending three weeks living with some other really hot person. (Don’t bother trying to make sense of this premise.) The usual reality antics ensue, but even a casual viewer of The Ultimatum can’t help but notice that everyone on the show, in every situation that involves imbibing any liquid, seems to use an opaque, metallic-looking goblet or tumbler. The aesthetic is Pier 1 meets Game of Thrones.

[Photo: Netflix]
At times the omnipresence of these objects is the most compelling thing on screen. “Seriously, though: what is with these goblets?” The Daily Beast wondered when the series debuted. “They’re in every shot of the damn show, iconic in a way Emily in Paris is—tacky, campy, and horribly wonderful.”

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The explanation, it turns out, is a kind of inadvertent branding strategy, cross-matched with consumer merch madness—that peculiar hunger for linking pop culture fandom to all manner of material goods.

[Photo: Netflix]
The back story actually begins on a different, sister show, Love Is Blind, which involved participants “dating” without being able to see each other, committing to marriage, and discovering how that works out. (This was positioned as a psychological “experiment.” Again, don’t overthink it.)  

[Photo: Netflix]
The opaque drinkware crept into Love Is Blind gradually. Participants used normal glasses through most of season one, with only a few minor cameos by metallic-looking champagne flutes and wine glasses, growing more common in later episodes.

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Someone at the show clearly recognized the utility or potential in these props, because in season two, which debuted earlier this year, the gold-colored wine glasses were, if not quite ubiquitous, definitely hard to miss. They cropped up not only in the studio but also at picnics on the beach, at the couples’ apartments, in their potential in-laws’ homes, and even at their weddings.

[Photo: Netflix]
“It’s something I like,” Love Is Blind creator Chris Coelen said when asked directly about the unmissable prop. “When you turn on the show, you know it’s our show. It’s . . . very authentic.” Setting aside the “authentic” claim for now, this answer makes perfect sense: It’s a visual signature, and a bit of embedded branding. Think of it, in fact, like a variation on product placement—but with the subtly promoted product being the show itself.

Or maybe the product being promoted is the drinkware, too? The consternation about the distracting goblets overlapped almost exactly with the question of how and where to buy them. Refinery29, citing an anonymous producer on the show, soon revealed that the show used metallic drinkware from VonShef, then available on Amazon (but promptly sold out).

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[Screenshot: VonHaus]
In any case, Coelen is also the creator of The Ultimatum (which also shares hosts Nick and Vanessa Lachey with Love Is Blind). And from the jump, the newer show has been all in on maximum goblet exposure.

“The silver goblets in The Ultimatum are an homage to the gold goblets in Love Is Blind,” Coelen told a different interviewer. “We think the goblets are a subtle but fun way to tie the elements of each show together.”

Again: branding. But by this point there wasn’t all that much subtlety about it. The show’s official Twitter account openly joked about the goblets. And in a “reunion” episode, a pregnant couple is winkingly gifted a silver goblet sippy cup.

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It should be noted that as a piece of set décor, an opaque drinking vessel has a very practical use in a (heavily edited) reality show. “When putting together a video, editors will often swap the order of clips, piecing together dialogue to fit a storyline or making a more sensical order,” a Food52 contributor with a food video background explained. “Things like noticeably empty drink cups that were delivered to the table five seconds ago can throw a wrench in an editor’s ability to manipulate the show’s order.” According to The Daily Beast, similarly metallic and opaque drinkware has popped up on other Netflix reality shows The Circle and Too Hot To Handle.

[Photo: Netflix]
But The Ultimatum in particular has seized on and exploited the trope so insistently that the show truly owns it. In fact, you can even buy the silver goblets and tumblers (and sippy cups) — officially branded with The Ultimatum‘s logo and catchphrase: “Marry or Move On” — in Netflix’ online store. So feel free to bring (authentic!) product placement into your actual home. And let’s raise a goblet to obscuring pesky truths with a shiny surface: If there’s one idea that unites reality TV and branding, that’s it.

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About the author

Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects

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