(Bloomberg Opinion) — After a year battling worsening Covid-19, and with new variants on the loose, Brazilians still face bouts of confinement and outright lockdown. So what’s the pastime of preference for this homebound nation of 211 million? Watching other people in quarantine.
Televisions, computer monitors, smart phones — all are locked into Big Brother Brasil, the local franchise of the reality show that is internationally known, but whose fan base and buzz is perhaps nowhere greater than in Brazil. Two decades on, the local edition, featuring a group of strangers competing for cash and glory under one roof, is still something of a cultural contagion, with tens of millions of willingly afflicted viewers.
True, most of the time nothing much happens on the Big Brother set, and what does is more bathos than drama. Try telling that to Brazilians, though, who hang on to every outburst, sedition, snuggle and budding crush, and then reprise the daily offerings on social media into the small hours. And for Brazil’s consumer companies, the fortuitous combination of the public health emergency, digital democracy and the national zeitgeist has delivered a captive audience, eager for reward and distraction.
Versions of Big Brother, which debuted in Holland in the 1999, still air in some 50 countries. The U.S. (3.9 million viewers in 2020) and Italian editions play to faithful niche audiences. Britain cancelled the game in 2018. The Saudi Arabian version lasted nine days. But in few societies do the follies of the human zoo play to as rapt a public as it does to Brazilians.
Leading broadcaster TV Globo launched Season 21 of Big Brother Brasil on Jan. 25 to an audience of 44 million; it clocked an average of 40 million daily viewers through late February. That’s not counting Globo’s on-demand service, which offers subscribers unlimited peeps through the keyhole, and the after-midnight chatter on social media, a Brazilian comfort zone.
Last year’s edition, season 20, began before the novel coronavirus outbreak, leaving the already confined participants none the wiser. Globo interrupted the game to advise contestants of the contagion, but only for a moment.
Indeed, the pandemic became an opportunity, giving the reality show a competitive advantage. As football games played to empty stadiums, and with production of the beloved Brazilian novelas, or soaps, suspended, Big Brother took up the slack in 2020. Then came a second wave of Covid-19, forcing authorities to cancel this year’s carnival celebrations and leaving orphaned merrymakers alone in the dark. Instead of sponsoring floats and samba queens, Brazilian advertisers doubled down on Big Brother. The payoff: Viewers took to cheering the show’s big moments “as wildly as football fans yell goal from their verandas,” said Raquel Messias, chief strategy officer of the advertising agency Lew’LaraTBWA.
One possible explanation for the program’s resilience, ironically, could be Brazil’s soft spot for polarized politics and culture wars. “It’s more than voyeurism. Big Brother gives people the opportunity to judge their peers, and people love to judge one another,” Mauricio Stycer, a screen critic for UOL and Folha de Sao Paulo, told me. Hence Big Brother plays tidily into the tropes of a riven nation, in which social media becomes a boombox for partisan battles and cancel culture.
Another reason could be the time-honored tradition of melodrama. Although Big Brother is a reality show, Globo tweaks the daily offering with soap opera flourishes. Cameras are everywhere, allowing producers to shoot from every angle, catch the contestants in flagrante delicto or delicious, and edit out the tedium, “as if it were all a big soap opera,” said television producer and screen critic Gabriel Priolli.
In the telenovela, after all, hotties, hunks, samaritans and bad hats mingle and collide. Oafs and goodly characters — “plants,” in novela jargon — generate laughs and empathy. But as O Globo television critic Patricia Kogut told me, “Villains are what drive the story — it’s the same with Big Brother.” In season 21, that role fell to Karol Conka, a singer and rapper and sois disant diva who came to the game as a rising social media influencer. On Feb. 23, with 63% of Brazil’s television sets tuned in, she left to a cannonade of boos, garnering a record-breaking 99% of thumbs-down votes.
So should moguls and marketers avoid such ignominy, or for that matter any of the other social and political landmines that detonate behind the country’s most closely watched doors? Silly question. “Advertisers sponsor the game not the characters,” says Messias, who also is a Big Brother aficionado. “The companies best positioned to take advantage of the program are those that dialogue with the public, react quickly to new facts and, instead of avoiding controversy, clearly express a point of view.”
Indeed, Big Brother’s longevity may depend on the degree to which the sometimes heated exchanges over racism, machismo, homophobia and social exclusion flow freely on the set, just as they do outside the studio walls. “Big Brother will be relevant and attractive to sponsors as long as it continues to reflect the sensibilities and demands of society,” said TV Globo programming director Amauri Soares.
Some of the biggest brands in the country have taken note, including the megastore Lojas Americanas, Avon, Amstel, McDonald’s and the meatpacking firm Seara. Twitter in Brazil even published a crib sheet on how companies can surf Big Brother’s social media wave to success.
And beware the marketeer who misses the cues from the woke demographic to whom Big Brother’s passions speak. “Of course there’s an element of risk in placing your product in an unscripted show where accidents and surprises happen,” admits Mario D’Andrea, who presides over the Brazilian Advertising Agencies Association. He cited the recent edition of Big Brother Portugal in which one contestant was given to Nazi salutes, and the Brazilian fashion model in Italy’s Grande Fratello VIP who rubbed her housemates — and Italians — wrong so often she was not only voted out of the house but triggered a Brazil-Italy fan war and spasms of xenophobia. Last month, beermaker Amstel spoke out when one contestant quit the Brazilian program after being repeatedly bullied by housemates, going so far as to insert politically correct messaging into one sponsored episode. “We do not condone behavior that leads to exclusion or disrespect,” Amstel said in a statement.
Yet where sociologist see risk and conflict, most consumer brands see customers. “Big Brother’s audience is colossal and growing all the time. That’s what attracts sponsors,” said D’Andrea. And when the program gets ugly, with displays of racism or supercilious political correctness, sponsors may pivot but do they run? Of course they do, he said. All the way to the bank.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”