South Park continued its impressive 19th season last night with “Sponsored Content.” In the episode, PC Principal goes after Jimmy, the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, Super School News, because Jimmy allows a first-grader to use the word “retarded” in an op-ed, which PC Principal opposes. Of course, the underlying irony is that Jimmy is physically handicapped — his preferred nomenclature, as he says throughout the episode — and yet PC Principal is the one telling him how to talk about differently abled people. It’s a messy argument — who should stand up for whom and how — but South Park, as always, provides its point of view without much opposition.
The episode’s other primary storyline is where it begins to get ridiculous. Jimmy strictly opposes advertising in Super School News, which makes it a hit around town. Geico then offers Jimmy $26 million to put some ads in the paper, but they’re not exactly ads. They’re… sponsored content.
Basically, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone insist that news doesn’t really exist on the internet anymore. Everything’s backed by someone’s ad money, which leads to watered-down content like slideshows and listicles. Ultimately, they suggest that human beings are ads — kind of like caricatures of what we think people should be, not who they really are. And that’s where they’re poking a little fun at themselves.
South Park has received overwhelming critical acclaim for Season 19, even if viewership is a bit down. And deservedly so. It’s stuck to a particular theme — critiquing and satirizing political correctness and its surrounding culture — and managed to build on the plot from episode to episode. But it’s almost like South Park is creating some sponsored content of its own.
The jokes — which have become increasingly rare — are still classic Parker-Stone toilet humor. That’s part of the satire — having the PC frat’s political correctness actually stand for “pussy crushing,” for example — but it also signals that Parker and Stone are aware of what will get them into frickin’ Adweek for critiquing ad blocking. They can make some pretty straightforward claims about sponsored content — that it’s impossible to avoid and often hard to distinguish what’s sponsored and what’s news — and still get away with having the stunning and brave Caitlyn Jenner say Hillary Clinton’s face looks like donkey shit and pizza.
South Park is giving people what they want, just as sponsored content is known to do. Parker and Stone are just providing it the way that they want to do it — we’re happy to be their suckers.