Buried deep within this sentence (Doritos are delicious) is an advertisement. Did you catch it? You probably didn’t because it was so subtly subliminal, but that’s exactly how product placement has worked for a century to varying degrees of success. After all, there’s a thin line between using real-life products in a film to create a sense of verisimilitude and using them to promote the product in question.
Where that line is drawn is up to each person. One person might see a kid reading “National Geographic” in It’s a Wonderful Life and think it’s quaintly appropriate while another person might find it craven and conspicuous. To the same extent, different film productions have delivered brands with means ranging from the slyness of near-imperceptibility to almost Doritos-Scorchin’-Habanero-Flavor levels of obviousness.
It’s far from new, and even though sold items have sneaked their way into movies for almost one hundred years, there’s been an explosion in recent decades, seeing a new revenue stream for studios and a new annoyance for film fans.
One of the first examples was the integration of Red Crown Gasoline into the 1919 Fatty Arbuckle-starring silent film The Garage – a move that was criticized heavily by motion picture journal Harrison’s Reports (yes, people have been complaining about product placement for as long as it’s been around). It’s also not a sole example of the bygone era. Best Picture winner Wings (1927) featured a Hershey’s Chocolate Bar, there’s a banner ad for Wrigley’s Gum in Fritz Lang’s M, The Marx Brothers built jokes around Life Savers Candy and the Mobil Logo, and then of course there’s the Wonderful Life/National Geographic tie-in. The point is that the practice had its early seeds in motion picture infancy, but those marketers and filmmakers couldn’t have even imagined the levels it would get to.
Like the level it got to in 1995 when sales for the BMW Z3 soared after James Bond drove one in GoldenEye. The result of that success? The marketer who put it together, Karen Sortito, created a $100m campaign for Tomorrow Never Dies which saw Bond mingling with all sorts of products (from L’Oreal make-up to Heineken beer). It was around that time that the new era of product placement that we know and tolerate really took off.
However, there was a Golden Age even before that. Unsurprisingly, this bastion of all things commercial took place during the 1980s, and it’s there that some of the best questions about how and why in-movie marketing works or doesn’t. Listing all the examples would take a much longer column and an intestinal fortitude only offered by eating a diet solely consisting of Doritos for four months straight, but the more blatant offenders are perhaps the best to shine a light on.
One of the worst of the bunch might be Back to the Future, a movie so viewed through nostalgia glasses that even the advertising in it seems kitschy and harmless now. The Pepsi partnership is over-the-top to the point that Marty McFly actually orders a Pepsi Free (something no one has ever drunk). It even jumped into the sequel when Marty goes to a Cafe 80s in the year 2015 and needs a $50 bill to buy a Pepsi. There’s also the Pizza Hut pizza they just add water to, the shoes, and maybe the most shining, silent product – the DeLorean itself. Documentarian Morgan Spurlock claimed that his Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was inspired by a scene in an episode of Heroes where Hayden Panettiere’s character squeals at getting a Nissan Rogue (even calling it out not just by name, but by maker), but the DeLorean went beyond product placement to become an integral icon of the film as a major character. Maybe it’s because of that heavy-use status that we don’t think of it as advertising, or maybe it’s the quality and staying power of the film that gives it a pass.
Or maybe we can appreciate product placement when it’s utilized while being mocked:
Because, on the other side of things, there are movies that blow Back to the Future out of the water, but they are so blatant that they seem criminal. Chief among them is the McDonald’s sponsored Mac & Me, a horrible movie that features an E.T.-like alien who loves McDonald’s. He loves the stuff more than Reese’s Pieces. From studying these films, it seems clear that to get away with product placement 1) your movie has to be good if not downright brilliant 2) the product can be cloaked by hiding it in plain sight or beyond several other products (like the DeLorean hiding behind Pepsi) and 3) the product has to make some kind of logical sense in the universe that’s created by the movie.
Take for example, The Wizard. The entire film is a giant advertisement for Nintendo that succeeded in making a slogan about the Power Glove the most quotable line. In one way, it’s pure marketing, but in another, it’s a movie about youth culture with a mainstay of that culture front and center. The advertising of The Wizard makes sense specifically because of how embedded it already was as entertainment, and because of the connection between Nintendo as a video game console company and the plot concept of a video game competition.
On its face, an alien that loves fast food hamburgers is sort of mentally challenged, and audiences responded with hostility. However, two stoners who love White Castle are totally kosher as a plot/advertising device.
With the farcical levels of product placement in movies like I, Robot; Transformers; Minority Report; You’ve Got Mail (AOL is its DeLorean); The Island and more, it would appear as if we as film fans are either fine with advertising in our narratives or that we have no choice but to roll our eyes at it. The most recent film to suck at the teat of paid advertising even looked like it might be going for the record. Even in the future, the arena in Real Steel is sponsored by Bing, X-Box has created the 720, and every soda ever is still going strong. It’s both the latest in the trend, and an example of it turned up to 11.
I worked (for an entire day) on the set of Iron Man, and what I remember most from the production trailer set out in a pile of sand outside Culver City was a wall of folders, clearly labeled for each department’s use. The folder for product placement was fat with paper, and I finally understood why when I saw Tony Stark eating from a Burger King wrapper. This stuff is everywhere now, and some filmmakers are better at hiding it than others, but with studios struggling to find new revenue streams in the face of lower audience turn out, we’ll most likely be seeing silver screen heroes using Apple computers, driving BMWs, and eating shitty hamburgers.