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Product Placement: When Movies Sell Out


These days, with films costing hundreds of millions of dollars becoming more and more commonplace, studios need more and more revenue streams to beef up their budgets. Product placement makes up a not inconsiderable portion of this revenue, despite some filmmakers outright claiming the practice to be corrupt, and damaging to the movies as a whole. No one likes being advertised to, so studios have had to work out ways of plying potential customers slyly. They don't always succeed.

Other than a contested Arbuckle and Keaton short, the first example of true blue product placement was in the first ever Best Picture Winner Wings, from 1927. Hershey's chocolate bars were incorporated into the plot, with a number of shots lingering on the treat. Hershey's enjoyed a similar privilege after an appearance by Reese's Pieces in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial saw the company stock soar by 65%. It's only gotten more involved since then, culminating in The Lego Movie, one big commercial for Lego, all be it a great movie in the same breath. Heavy-handed product placement can, however, backfire, as in Demolition Man, where in the not too distant future all restaurants have been replaced by Taco Bell, Mac and Me, where we spend unreal amounts of time at the local McDonald's and Coca-Cola revives the heroes' dying alien family, and The Internship, where we learn all about how great it is to work at Google. In each of these films corporate interest dominated the audience's attention, as opposed to providing earnest entertainment.

Most product placements are less involved in the plot, and typically involve just featuring the product on screen somewhere, as an example; the ubiquity of Beats by Dre, or Sony computers, cameras, speakers and so on in all of their films. The shamefully materialistic Sex and the City movies stayed on brand with 67 placements. Sometimes it can be preferable for audiences to see recognisable brands on screen, as seeing an obviously fabricated product can take you out of a film just as easily as a blatant ad. When characters go on search engines like “Go-search!” or “Web-finder”, it halts suspension of disbelief far more than any supernatural plot elements could.

Some of the best product placement involves clothing brands making stylish introductions for upcoming items by placing them in blockbusters. Back to the Future 2 of course has the self-tying laces on future Nikes, but the whole series is crawling with products. Marty goes by a pseudonym mistakenly attributed to him when someone reads ‘Calvin Klein' written on his underwear. Probably the most tangible effect on the market was had by Tom Cruise when he sported Aviator glasses for Ray Ban in Top Gun.

On the more insidious side of things, kids' films can push desirable toys, especially around Christmas time. The Most effective example of this would be Toy Story, which not only hyped up classic toys like Slinky's and Mr. Potato-head in the minds of impressionable young viewers, but launched the sales of millions of toys in the likeness of the film's original characters like Woody and Buzz Lightyear, too. Every couple of years a sequel or spin-off or reboot is to be expected, to reinvigorate public interest in the brand and get a new horde of kids excited about having their own Buzz Lightyear.

A favorite among obvious, pandering product placement would be the classic Wayne's World scene, where Garth and Wayne sermonise: “I will not bow to any sponsor” whilst mugging at the camera with perfectly angled Pizza Hut boxes and Pepsi cans. Associating a product with endearing characters like this is A + marketing, for instance Harold and Kumar who's trip to their favourite restaurant White Castle managed to provide the title of one of their films, or the extended McDonald's centric conversation in Pulp Fiction (conveniently noting that Vincent didn't bother to go to Burger King while he was in Paris, just McDonald's). These films treat the existence of consumerism as an unavoidable fact of pop culture, and use meta-humour to shield from appearing to cow-tow to backers under the guise of connecting to their audience more realistically, sometimes foregoing payment for mentioning a product all together. This is one of the better routes to take.

But, when it comes to product placement, nobody does it better than James Bond. Outside of the fact that Bond is already accepted as a tool for wish-fulfilment, he's a great character to attach brands to because he has established brand-oriented tastes, and has had them for decades. You could look at a product and know instinctively whether Bond might have it tucked away among his gadgets. This segues nicely into cars, booze, watches, and smart phones. Certain associations become so iconic that the two end up benefitting each other in equal measure, like with the definitive Aston Martin. At least one Bond outing was funded entirely by product placement. Ever Ready and Pan Am, BMW and Microsoft, Smirnoff and Dom Pérignon, everyone wants to throw money at the producers of the Bond series.

But the character's sensibilities as an idiosyncratic tastemaker mean the marketing department find themselves on a tight leash, prone to fan backlash when they stray too far from what is expected of 007 (for instance when the secret agent traded in his drink of choice, the Vodka Martini, for a Heineken, causing much uproar following the release of Spectre). We can only hope that the recent commercial for Heineken's non-alcoholic beer isn't a sign of things to come for No Time To Die.