jumping on the brandwagon
Published 31/07/2010 | 05:00
The dark art of product placement is a subtle and devilish thing. Most people cite the Sex and the City films as egregious and shameless examples of this insidious practice, but at least they're up front about the shoes and bags and coats and dresses they're plugging. Far worse are the films where the products are so cleverly placed that only your subconscious takes notice -- or the ones that try and make a virtue of plugging things and fail.
It's tempting to think of product placement as a relatively new phenomenon, dating back, say, to the mid-1980s. But movies have always been expensive things to make, and the idea of products being prominently positioned in return for payment or favours is a very old one.
In fact, the practice apparently pre-dates movies altogether, and when Jules Verne was writing his serialised adventure story Around the World in Eighty Days in the 1870s, shipping companies regularly offered him money to mention their names. Charles Dickens was similarly propositioned.
Though it had doubtless happened before this, the first recorded instance of Hollywood product placement occurred in the 1919 Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle comedy The Garage, which included a prominent plug for Red Crown gasoline. By the mid-1920s product placement had become rampant and was widely condemned -- but to no avail, as various cigarette companies, soft drink and automobile manufacturers made hay.
Even the Corona typewriter company became shamelessly adept at placing its products in films like The Lost World, and the winner of the 1927 Best Picture Oscar, Wings, included a blatant plug for Hershey bars.
Product placement continued merrily through the 1930s, '40s and '50s, and even occurred in the films of people you might have thought above such behaviour. In the Marx Brothers' 1949 film Love Happy, Harpo did a routine on a rooftop surrounded by prominently positioned signs for Mobil Oil.
Abercrombie & Fitch, which has since become the clothes brand of choice for Ireland's would-be preppies, scored a blatant coup in the early 1960s by persuading the makers of the Rock Hudson romantic comedy Man's Favourite Sport to set the story in one of their stores. The James Bond franchise was -- and still is -- adept at making a little money on the side by endorsing cars, jewellery and clothes. But first prize for imaginative product placement goes to Pan Am airlines, who managed to get a plug into Stanley Kubrick's sci-fi masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The golden age of product placement began in the 1980s when, as the cost of making movies shot through the roof, buying product time in major Hollywood films suddenly got a whole lot easier.
In the Back to the Future franchise, underpants were flogged to a flabbergasting extent, most memorably in the sequence when Marty McFly goes back in time and everyone thinks his name is Calvin Klein because that's what's written on his shorts. And in the second film the lame notion of self-tying Nikes draws attention to Marty's footwear. Pepsi and Pizza Hut get a ringing endorsement in all three.
In the awful 1993 Sly Stallone action film Demolition Man, the futuristic America in which it's set is overrun with Taco Bell fast food restaurants. This is an example of product placement being written into the script, and the same could be said of the Robert Zemeckis film Cast Away, which is one long advert for Fed Ex (with an extended plug for Wilson basketballs thrown in).
In Blade: Trinity (2004) Jessica Biel's high-kicking character was seen downloading songs from iTunes to her iPod before a big fight. And equally blatant is the moment in Casino Royale (2006), when Bond flashes his Omega watch and Vesper Lynd dutifully admires it. No doubt totally coincidentally, Omega were an official sponsor of the film.
Michael Bay's 2005 film The Island is often cited as one of the worst offenders in terms of product placement, and the film features at least 35 individual plugs for brands including cars, bottled water and shoes to computer search engines and ice cream. Even Steven Spielberg is not above it. ET included a sly promo for Reese's Pieces chocolate.
Even the mighty Toy Story franchise, which is currently resurrecting a dismal summer blockbuster season, is not above reproach. When the first film came out in 1995, the classic toys it featured like Slinky and Mr Potato Head were selling badly and in danger of disappearing altogether. After Toy Story appeared, sales of Mr Potato Head went through the roof, and even the Etch-a-Sketch drawing toys experienced a big comeback.
The makers of Barbie took due notice. Mattel had turned Pixar down when approached about the inclusion of Barbie in Toy Story, but by the time its sequel came along they were very keen to become involved. In Toy Story 3 both Barbie and Ken appear.
As for the Sex and the City films, the first one famously included placements for as many as 90 products. But the worst offender of all is not Sex and the City or its sequel, but the 2004 Alex Proyas adventure, I, Robot.
Apart from the flashy Audi designed exclusively for the picture and the JVC CD player Will Smith practically holds up in front of the camera, the film includes the staggering moment where Smith shows off his footwear and says "Converse, vintage 2004".
It just goes to show that movie placements involving major stars are worth more than a thousand ads, and as long as movie makers are prepared to play ball, major companies will continue to pay handsomely for the privilege.