TRUST NO-ONE: THE NATURE OF PRODUCT PLACEMENT IN MOVIES

July 31, 2008

When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is finally freed from the torture of his Afghani desert prison cell, in the recent Iron Man film, he turns around and, in his most patriotic voice, says, “Get me an American cheese burger!” In the next scene, on his way into a press conference, Stark is handed a Burger King bag, the logo carefully turned to face outwards, and friend-turned-villain Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) says, “You had to stop at Burger King” – just to make sure he drives the point home, and gets paid. Watching, I nearly puked up my trailer-eaten popcorn and the handful of (unnamed chocolate brand) I was busy shoveling.

Another recent, otherwise-quality film tainted by the sins of the greedy is J.J Abrams’ epic new horror adventure Cloverfield. The handheld first person camera technique really sucks you in. You trust its immediacy. The film becomes a high budget, thrill-a-minute, emotional roller-coaster. That’s why the scenes in the subway, with the Nokia poster backdrop, and the shots of one of the protagonists, post-invasion, propped up against a subway wall, Mountain Dew logo clearly visible to the top right, seem even more offensive than your usual Will Smith product endorsement affair. Later on, the main character, Hud, drops the camera on the floor just long enough for a pair of swooshes to be clearly visible. “Those are cool shoes,” a friend of mine said.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be this skeptical, integrity-questioning cynic that these movies have made me become. I just want to be able to watch a movie, switch off, and trust in the magic of entertainment. Why can’t they just tell a story without selling every square inch of space to the highest bidder?

Imagine your mum or dad’s reading you a bedtime story; “The prince, wearing his Nike Air Force 1s, climbed the Black & Decker ladder up the Dulux-painted, Coca Cola castle wall. He was on his way to save Princess Revlon from the Iron Fist of The McDonalds dragon. Tired, he paused and sipped the Red Bull Merlin had given him earlier. Then, he reached into his pocket, grabbed his Nokia N73, and checked his messages. Nothing. Time, according to his Tag Heuer Grand Carrera, to go…” It just wouldn’t work, would it? ‘Cos, how the hell are you supposed to escape reality during a commercial break? What’s next, paid-for advertising in our dreams?

But product placement is nothing new. It’s just becoming more blatant and common practice, as advertisers search for new and more inventive portholes into our brains. But for some reason, in the old Back to the Future, ET days, product placement just didn’t carry the same kind of soul-crushing stigma. I guess back then, our brains were just wired differently, the world hadn’t gone consumer mad, nobody had sales rabies. We could tolerate the fact that ET’s favourite chocolate was Reese’s Pieces, or that Marty McFly wore Nikes, got called Calvin Klein, and drove a De Lorean. Shit, De Lorean even went broke after the movie. Maybe we just hadn’t been subjected to it enough to build up an immunity.

In the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, Wayne (Mike Meyers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) go all out making fun of product placement and sponsor obligations; “Contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor,” says Wayne, holding up a slice of pizza and lifting the lid of a Pizza Hut box. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but basically, it’s the nature of the beast,” replies TV executive Benjamin Kane (Rob Lowe). “Maybe I’m wrong on this one, but for me, the beast doesn’t involve selling out,” says Wayne, this time holding up a bag of Doritos. “It’s, like, people only do things because they get paid. And that’s just really sad,” adds Garth, dressed head to toe in Reebok. Funny then, but depressing now, when you consider the product placement crimes committed by Mike Meyers’ more modern comedy persona, Austin “Mini Cooper/AOL” Powers.

Click here to watch the classic Wayne’s World scene!

One of the most successful product placements of all time is the Z3 Roadster deal BMW struck with Golden Eye and James Bond, in 1995. Golden Eye was the first of a lucrative “three picture deal” BMW signed with the film franchise. Needless to say, a world of mid-life crisis Bond fans went out and bought Z3s. Even more sickeningly, Golden Eye was also the first Bond film where Bond wasn’t wearing a Rolex – Omega had a better deal this time.

These days, if you see a logo in a movie, the company paid for it to be there. And as far as movies laced-with-advertising movies go, 2004’s I, Robot is the pinnacle of excess. Nothing detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) does comes without a contract and a paycheck; he listens to music on a JVC CD player, drives an Audi, and gets his mail from FedEx. Remember that scene when he goes on and on about his pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars? Disgustingly, Smith even holds them up and says, “Converse, vintage 2004,” like it’s an actual Converse advert. Why the hell is this guy trying to sell me sneakers when he should be out there trying to catch bad robots? And, surprise surprise, you can order I, Robot edition, Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars online – what a sinister world we live in.

In the 2004 Wesley Snipes horror Blade: Trinity, there’s a ridiculous scene near the beginning, where Abigail Whistler (Jessica Biel), basically, gives us an iPod/iTunes/iStore presentation. Abigail talks about the thrills of killing vampires to a soundtrack, downloads music from the iStore, and puts together a killer playlist for her next sharp-toothed encounter. In 1993, Demolition Man was pretty much sponsored by Taco Bell (Pizza Hut if you live outside the US). In 2000, Tom Hanks hung out with nothing but FedEx bags and a Wilson volleyball when he was cast away on that island. And then there’s Spider Man, shooting webs at Dr. Pepper cans and landing on logo-perfectly-visible Carlsberg trucks.

For me, thinly-veiled attempts like these to sell me something, while I’m trying to mellow out, unplug from reality, and enjoy a bit of light entertainment, ruin a movie and taint its authenticity. Actors like Will Smith and Tom Hanks become brand ambassadors first, and entertainers second. It’s what we in the trade call advertorial. It’s not advertising. It’s not editorial. Instead, it’s a satanic mismatch of both, fueled by innovative, 21st Century door-to-door salesmen, looking for new and more direct ways into your brain. And I haven’t even mentioned product placement in video games. But gamers know it’s a market that has been bitten, and it’s just a matter of time before the rabies start showing symptoms. Trust no-one out there.

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