‘The Kardashians’ on Hulu is Glorified Product Placement

WThe announcement was made in September 2020. Staying up with the KardashiansThe 20-season run of E! would see the end. This made it seem like reality television’s first family was done. In just 13 years, Kardashian-Jenner’s family has gone from being celebrity-adjacent, to becoming bona fide celebrities, while also building an illustrious business empire. The Kardashian-Jenner family returned to the spotlight less than two decades later after a content deal for Hulu worth just over $100 million. The Kardashians. It is filled with the same versions of confessionals as before and carefully composed family drama that defines Keep Up, the Hulu series deviates little from its predecessor—though it is all filmed with the glow of a much higher production budget.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the family that changed the face and scope of influencer marketing would return to reality TV, a platform that allows for endless free opportunities for showcasing the many brands that make up the Kardashian-Jenner business empire. Opening to The KardashiansThis is evident in the April 14 premiere of “The Lie,” which was a continuous shot that introduced the family. In a sweeping continuous shot that introduces the family, bouncing from sister to sister in the Calabasas Hills, nearly a third of the 3 minute intro is spent in the respective offices of Kylie Cosmetics and SKIMS, where the brands’ logos, operations, products (and proprietors) are shown to maximum effect. It sets the stage for the entire episode with its glossy and glorified product placement.

Each of the Kardashian-Jenner brands is referenced at least once in the hourlong premiere, from Kendall Jenner’s tequila brand, 818, to Kim Kardashian’s $3.2 billion shapewear line, SKIMS, which is casually dropped into conversation three times and appears five times via confessional outfits, show rooms, and Kim’s closet (in a particularly memorable scene, Kim cries amidst racks of only SKIMS in a giant closet). It’s the kind of subliminal marketing that most brands can only dream of.

“They’re getting paid for the show, but they’re leveraging that into getting free media,” says Krishna Subramanian, co-founder of the influencer marketing firm, Captiv8. According to Subramanian, the Kardashian-Jenner family’s return to reality TV is less a bid for influence than it is a savvy business move. He estimates that a 30-second mention of any of the family’s brands in an episode could be valued anywhere from $500,000 to $1.5 million (by comparison, when Kim Kardashian married Kris Humphries in 2011, ad spots for the wedding special were selling for $100,000 each).

This integrated, semi-incognito approach to shilling their products has been key to the success of the Kardashian-Jenner business model, which has long relied on the power of the family’s personal brands and their ability to connect with their fans and followers simply by selling themselves—perhaps most compellingly on television. Although their Instagrams collectively have attracted hundreds of million of followers, they were not the most popular. Staying up with the Kardashians that gave viewers a seemingly unfiltered look at the family—their squabbles, their heartbreaks, their dramas, and their triumphs, all points of connection for their followers. You may not live in Calabasas, but if you’ve argued with your sister or broken up with a lover, you’ve shared something with the Kardashian-Jenner sisters.

“The Kardashians aren’t saying ‘go buy my product.’ They’re talking about it or giving you insight into how it’s built and all the nuances of it and then all of a sudden, you want to be a part of that, so you go out and make those purchases,” says Subramanian.

Subramanian claims that one of the reasons people gravitate towards certain influencers is because they appear authentic. The Kardashians’ brand was built around their relatability and that of their families, so having a way to connect with fans is a key reason why they decided to come back to TV.

“The minute you start having something that’s completely raw and unfiltered, you truly create an emotional connection with that audience and your consumers,” he says. “Consumers are more invested in what’s happening on a day-to-day basis and when they start to do that, they want to be a part of that journey—and being a part of that, is buying the product. The Kardashians are the OGs of this.”

While this unfiltered, authentic appearance was instrumental to the rise of the Kardashian-Jenners in pop culture, one can argue that their relatability has waned as they’ve amassed huge levels of fame and success, presenting a challenge to the very business model they’ve championed. Most recently, Kim Kardashian went viral for the wrong reasons when she admonished women in business to “get your f-cking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.” The misguided attempt at giving advice prompted swift backlash.

Subramanian claims that a new season will bring Subramanian’s show a fresh start. The Kardashians ahead of us, there’s plenty of time for Kim to ingratiate herself again with her consumer base.

“Everyone loves a good comeback,” he says. “And Hulu’s given them the ability to become relatable all over again.”

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