“Product placement, to put it very simply, is a practice that turns movies into outright commercials.” (Mark Crispin Miller) This viewpoint may seem extreme, but exactly how far from the truth is he? It’s a feature of commercialism we’re all aware of, but how tuned into the actual workings of advertising in film are we? We turn our noses up when we spot it, claiming that we’d never be so easily influenced, but can we be so sure?
Advertising in movies has existed in various forms since the birth of the film industry as a mainstream commercial vehicle. In the 1930s, the actress Olivia de Havilland was paid large sums of money to endorse various products, one example being Lux Soap, the biggest exponent of “Hollywood Beauty Care”. However, it took until 1971 for product placement to really take off and for people to recognise its potential. The movie that bridged the gap was ‘Dirty Harry’, specifically, Clint Eastwood and his use of the 44. Magnum. In the aftermath of the film’s release, Smith and Wesson noted that sales of that particular weapon rose dramatically, in some cases the handgun was selling at three times retail prices. This was the first spark of what was to be an endless roaring fire of money-spinning commercialism. Advertisers now noticed the largely untapped market, and deciding to milk for all it was worth was the next logical step.
There are several types of product placement, though the golden egg for advertisers is for a film character to perform what is known in the industry as ‘The Plug Deluxe’. This is a shot of said character directly interacting with the featured product, and then often displaying a look of genuine fulfilment. Witnessing a Plug Deluxe is akin to watching an advert within a film, as if there’s a sudden short intermission; “And now, a word from our sponsor…” To fully understand what I mean, I’ll point you to several examples. ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ (1999) featured an excellent plug for Pepsi, with Rene Russo’s character vending a can of the drink and promptly turning profile to camera, consuming the beverage in the classic advertisement style. There was the Dr. Pepper moment in ‘Forrest Gump’. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s constant need for Dunkin’ Donuts in ‘Good Will Hunting’. Not forgetting the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ dependence on Dominos pizza.
This leads me to a mention of the ‘Cola Wars’ – for those who don’t know, the battle for supremacy between Pepsi and Coca Cola that peaked during the 1980s but is still raging today. This was no more evident than in the 1982 film ‘Missing’ which depicted a conflict between Americans and the Pinochet Regime – respectively the good guys and the bad guys of the piece. However, throughout the movie we see constant references to Coca Cola alongside the Americans, and the rival product Pepsi being associated with the Pinochet regime. A very subversive ploy by Coca Cola you may think, and you may wonder how exactly they got the film’s producers onboard with doing this. Delve a little into the film’s production line and you’ll find the simple answer, Coca Cola were the film’s producers. Columbia Pictures, the company behind the movie, were owned by Coca Cola for a seven-year period in the 1980s, and as such had free reign over the amount of advertising in the films produced.
It is surprisingly difficult to source insightful quotes regarding opinions on this subject, in particular from prominent filmmakers. It seems that product placement is currently the largest elephant in the film industry’s room of ivory. Thankfully, the one man you can always rely on to be outspoken in his musings has blessed us with another gem of a statement. David Lynch, director of mind-trippers such as ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Eraserhead’, was once quizzed on where he stood on the growing trend of product placement in Hollywood. His response was quite simply, “Bullshit. That’s how I feel. Total fucking bullshit.” This quote goes beyond representing Lynch’s attitude and, in fact, displays to us a deeper frustration within the industry. Auteurs like Lynch are in the business to make movies, not to make themselves rich. It is unfortunate then, that the use of advertising in film is a means to an end rather than a commercial choice. This fact is displayed in Lynch’s own work – I wonder how he would react if you quizzed him on the rather overblown use of the ‘Heineken’ brand in his movie ‘Blue Velvet’. It is blatant product placement – there’s just no denying it. I refuse to buy into the idea that Lynch was trying to be topical and further the realism of his characters. There has to have been some money exchanged here. In all, would we rather the films of directors such as Lynch were made with advertising or not made at all?
Despite my determination to avoid James Bond, as it is frankly too obvious an example, I’ve come to terms with the fact that my defences will be breached as I reach the topic of movie ‘cross-promotion’. Cross-promotion is an arrangement between films and advertising agencies that leads to promotional to campaigns that feature both commodities. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. These have been particularly successful in recent years, with ‘Casino Royale’ being a standout example. A deal was brokered between MGM and watch manufacturer Omega that went beyond the product placement of Omega in the film, and included a poster campaign that stated both, “No film release is more eagerly anticipated than a new instalment in the James Bond series,” and, “[James Bond] will be wearing an Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean 600m Co-Axial Chronometer”. The poster is endorsing both the film and the watch (though the description makes it sound like the latest advancement in rocket technology) thus killing two advertisement-shaped birds with one stone. The success of cross-promotion such as the Omega/Bond love affair is likely to lead to an increased trend in this kind of relationship. Expect more movie protagonists to get directly brand-associated in the near future.
A method filmmakers have conjured to counter the ever-growing trend of product placement is to use it in an ironic way, satirically critiquing the use of advertising in movies. Mike Myers has been a particular exponent of this, and two of the most prominent examples can be found in his films. ‘Wayne’s World’, the cult tale of two 80s starlets trying to conquer public-access television, dedicated an entire scene to mocking product placement. “Well that’s where I see things just a little differently, contract or no, I will not bow to any sponsor,” Myers states as he grabs a slice of pizza from a box clearly labelled ‘Pizza Hut’. Another Myers venture to follow the same lines of mockery was ‘Austin Powers’ sequel ‘The Spy Who Shagged Me’. The film depicted the headquarters of arch villain Dr. Evil as also being the HQ of coffee-chain Starbucks. This was a deliberate swipe at the global conglomerate, inferring a direct comparison between them and the films axis of evil. Not that Starbucks cared in the slightest – bad connotations or no, they were still being featured in a hugely successful comedy film, and to the average viewer it almost looks like they’re in on the joke.
The real problem I have with product placement is that when I become aware of it in a film I particularly enjoy, it takes away a good percentage of the magic. ‘Serpico’, Sidney Lumet’s fantastic depiction of corruption in the New York police force, is a personal favourite of mine. However, during a recent re-watch I noticed Pacino turns up to one scene wearing a Coca Cola t-shirt, inexplicably breaking away from his characters wardrobe in the rest of the film. It would be difficult to prove that Pacino’s clothing was influenced by advertising, but the fact that it affects my enjoyment of the film displays my sensitivity to the subject on the whole. Product placement certainly isn’t without its merits, but the real question is what difference does it make, i.e. does it affect artistic merit? Personally, I believe it does. Product placement is a compromise and we have to ask ourselves how many great movies have been made by compromising.