South Park's 19th season has been unusually strong, thanks to a season-long storyline involving topics like political correctness and gentrification. "Sponsored Content," last night's episode of the Comedy Central hit, was one of its best yet in 2015. Show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone hilariously took on several of the issues advertisers have been grappling with, including ad blocking and sponsored content.
In the episode, the elementary school's new principal, PC Principal, informs the student editor of the school newspaper, Jimmy, that he can no longer distribute the paper in school until the content is pre-approved. Jimmy refuses and instead delivers it door to door, to the delight of parents who are finally able to enjoy news stories that aren't obstructed by ads.
"There's no ads, no sponsored content, no links to click on," says one overjoyed parent, Stephen. He then goes off on this rant about the insanity of reading content online:
"Do you know how long it's been since I was just able to sit back and read the news? I got so used to getting news off the internet, but I feel like I'm always trying to chase the news somehow. It's like I'm in a black void trying to reach the news story, but then the next thing I know, I'm reading an ad for Geico. So I click out of that and try to read the news story, but it's not a news story, it's a slide show. And I'm looking at the worst celebrity plastic surgery jobs ever. So of course I want to see the next slide of plastic surgery gone wrong, so I hit the arrow. But then the arrow wasn't the arrow for the next slide, it was to take me for an ad for face cream. I wanted to get a new story, but I'm reading about face cream, and I try to click out of it but the ad is following me. It's following me all over the screen! No! So I click on the close button, but it wasn't a close button, it was another slide show! And I just want to know what's happening in the Middle East, but instead I'm looking at the 'Top 10 scariest movies of all time'! And that's not the arrow for the next slide, it's for another ad. Ahhh! But this, this is just news, and I don't get lost in all the bullshit."
As Jimmy's newspaper, Super School News, becomes more popular with adults, he is visited by a Geico rep, who offers him $26 million to write Geico sponsored content in the newspaper. "Everyone's doing it, Jim. You're sort of the last holdout. $26 million just to write some new stories that get people thinking about their insurance coverage?" said the rep, who warns, "You can try to block ads, but they get smarter. The more we try to shut them out, the more clever they get."
Finally, Jimmy meets with several unidentified men in suits. The leader of the group, voiced by Bill Hader, tells Jimmy that "the average human can no longer tell the difference between the news and an ad," and Jimmy has a rare "mental ability" to be able to do so. He then drops this bombshell:
"What if I were to tell you that ads have became smarter than us, and now they're manipulating everything we do? …It was our own fault. Mankind became tired of ads, so we kept inventing ways to make things ad-free. We even created ad blockers. That's when the ads had to adapt. They had to disguise themselves as news in order to survive."
The episode, which references both Terminator and Blade Runner, ends on a cliffhanger, with the revelation that Leslie, a new student introduced this season, and possibly PC Principal, are not humans but ads that have adapted to their environment.
Because the show is off next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, we'll have to wait at least two weeks to find out if Parker and Stone will continue to satirize the advertising community. There are two more episodes left before the season concludes.
There were plenty of targets to go around in last night's episode, as Parker and Stone also found time to poke fun at Hillary Clinton, Caitlyn Jenner, Presidential debates and the recent University of Missouri protests in which protestors demanded a "safe space" and barred the media from entering.
Here is the full episode: