Sunday, April 18, 2010

Film List: Best Use of Product Placement in Film Narrative

Lists?  Who doesn't love lists?  Well, apart from the fact that they are usually limited in scope, not arranged by any particular rhyme or reason, people love 'em.  Welcome to the first list on this blog.  Note that a version of this previously appeared on UGO, when they hosted Screenwriters Voice.  As that is no longer available online, I'm redoing this from memory and updating it.  Without further ado...

Love it or hate it, product placement is a vital part of movie making, especially in a world of escalating film budgets. Movies like Transformers feature extensive product placement, even making exclusive deals with General Motors for cross promotion. Some purists feel that product placement can undermine the effectiveness of a film's message, such as Total Recall, which features all the product placement typical of a summer blockbuster, yet has an anti-corporate satirical theme.

Most of the time, the brands featured are highly interchangeable.  For example, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial was originally supposed to feature M&Ms, but was changed to Reese's Pieces.  Castaway could have easily featured the main character as a UPS or Purolator employee rather than FedEx.  But, product placement is often at its most effective when it's cleverly incorporated into the film's narrative, as these are often real-world consumer goods and brands that the viewers use and associate specific meaning. The film world will also seem "real" because they're not using fictitious brands.

So, in no particular order...

10: Idiocracy(2006)
Writer/director: Mike Judge
Products/brands referenced: Starbucks, Fox, Fuddruckers, Costco, Mountain Dew, Frito-Lay, Carl's Jr., Hormel, Lexus

In Mike Judge's vision of the future, intelligence has been out-bred by stupidity, with the smart ones having small families and the not-so-smart ones reproducing in much larger numbers. As a consequence, Lt. Joe Bauer (played by Luke Wilson), an average guy from the present day, ends up being the smartest man on the planet after being frozen for 600 years. And the planet is in chaos.  Corporations have taken over everything, down to people being named after products (the American president is Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho) and replacing the water supply with a sports drink (the fictitious Brawndo). Starbucks is now a chain of brothels and Carl`s Jr.`s slogan has become, "F*** you, I`m eating!"

While developing a cult following, Idiocracy was severely under-marketed, resulting in a box office gross of less than half a million dollars. Some critics have suggested that this was due to the negative light in which Fox (the distributor of the film) is being portrayed, as well as the anti-corporate message. Films like this are not likely to receive compensation when brands are featured in this manner.

9: Toy Story (series)
Dir: John Lassatter
Products/brands referenced: Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, Etch-A-Sketch 

As children's toys come to life when their owner is not around, so do the memories of the people who are ultimately paying to see this film.  Having successfully secured licenses from multiple toy manufacturers (many of whom are competing), the filmmakers are able to utilize the familiar characters without having to go through the effort of creating them from scratch. This also leads to a humourous moment in Toy Story 2 which makes references to the unexpected demand for merchandise from the previous film.

8: Demolition Man(1993)
Products/brands referenced: Green Giant, Taco Bell, Armour Hot Dogs, Oscar Mayer, General Motors, Alka Seltzer

In the future, the Franchise Wars have destroyed all of the restaurant chains, leaving Taco Bell as the only survivor, while attention spans have been shredded to the point that commercial jingles have become radio classics.

While not exactly an Orwellian dystopia or even that much akin to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (outside of the bizarre plumbing system, the world just seems more sterile and sanitized rather than bad), this does lightly hint to the corporate penetration into our culture when songs intended to hawk products and services are now being voluntarily consumed by the public. The characters of the future gleefully indulge as they sing along to the Armour Hot Dogs jingle in the car, prompting the time-displaced John Spartan to lament, "Just toss me back in the fridge" as Linena Huxley belts out the last few notes.

7: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me(1999)
Products/brands referenced: Heineken beer, Starbucks, Chilli's

Blatant product placement is a fixture of summer blockbusters and usually doesn’t go unnoticed by moviegoers, already jaded by the 15 minutes of commercials preceding their film. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is no exception, although the filmmakers have gone all the way to incorporate them into the storyline with hilarious effect.

While the Heineken beer reference falls flat on its face, the most notable of all is where Dr. Evil shares his base of operations with Starbucks Coffee. Given Starbucks’ reputation as a corporate empire, this is all handled tongue-in-cheek, poking fun at the brand and themselves.

6: Cabin Fever(2002)
Brands referenced: Listerine

As each member of the group starts to show signs of a deadly flesh eating disease, Marcy (played by Cerina Vincent) seduces Paul (played by Rider Strong) into a sexual encounter, believing that they're all going to die.  Immediately after the encounter, Paul goes off to the bathroom and pours Listerine on his crotch in an attempt to prevent infection from either the flesh eating virus and/or whatever sexually transmitted diseases Marcy may be carrying.

Out of curiosity, I went on the film's official message board and asked the director how they were able to get permission to use Listerine in the film.  As an independent film production, product clearances aren't always done and the production crew are aware of this, and will take the risk of being sued, as it will generate more publicity for the film. In this case, Eli Roth politely asked that I didn't rat them out.

5: Pulp Fiction(1994)
Brands referenced: Burger King, McDonald's, Sprite, Jack in the Box, Wendy's

"And in Paris, you can buy a beer in McDonald's. And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder in Paris?  Naw, man. They got they metric system there. They wouldn't know what the f*** a Quarter Pounder is. They call it a 'Royale with Cheese'."  -Vincent Vega

Tarantino generally forgoes actual product placement within his films, usually going with fictitious brands such as Red Apple cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burgers. As a result, he wasn’t likely reimbursed for this reference, but this oft-quoted segment in Pulp Fiction shows what a little bit of research can do to enriching the characters and dialogue. This is a reflection of the experiences Tarantino had when spending time in Europe, which included eating French fries with mayonnaise, having a beer in a movie theatre, and enjoying a Royale with Cheese.

In some respects, the dialogue is “filler”, but it is not wasted as it enriches the characters and makes them real. Jules and Vincent aren’t particularly nice people (they are hired guns, after all), but this allows the audience to identify with them.

4: Fight Club(1999)
Products/Brands referenced: Starbucks, Peps, Microsoft, Ikea, Volkswagen, Apple Computers

Products and brands take a literal beating in this film with corporate alienation as one of the central themes.  With products and corporations contributing to the modern diluted male, the producers of Fight Club bite the hand that feeds it and then stomps on it and slams it in a car door.

Given the anti-corporate message in this film and the abuse dished out to products on screen, it's surprising that they actually paid out to the filmmakers.  There are several examples to this effect: Tyler Durden and The Narrator selectively smacking cars with baseball bats, one of which happens to be a new VW Beetle; the exploding of an Apple Computer store; and using a large landmark to destroy a coffee shop (originally intended to be Starbucks).

3: Wayne's World(1992)
Products referenced: Pizza Hut, Pepsi

Wayne's World takes the fourth wall (the imaginary wall between the characters and the audience) and drives a drives a delivery truck through it.  During one scene, Wayne and Garth are discussing creative integrity by not selling out to corporate interests.  And of course, while doing so they are eating Pizza Hut and drinking Pepsi, with their respective logos taking up a huge amount of screen space, and the duo smiling and giving thumbs-ups to the camera.

2: Minority Report (2002)
Products referenced: The Gap, Pepsi, Lexus, and others

While on the run from the law, John Anderton resorts to an eye transplant to avoid detection from retinal scanners placed all over the city.  This comes in handy when he ends up going into a clothing store (The Gap, of course) and he (or, more appropriately, the previous owner of his eyes) is immediately recognized by the store's recognition cameras, who then proceed to make recommendations based on his last purchase. At the time, this was a fairly ludicrous concept, but fast forward less than 10 years to today, and this is not that much far off.

By then, most internet-savvy individuals were already familiar with the way tracking cookies and web demographics will allow internet marketing companies to do targeted advertising towards individuals. Now, Facebook users also have advertising targeted at them based on their usage habits and what they enter in their profiles (eg: if your profile shows you as single, you will be bombarded with dating site ads). 

While computers aren't sophisticated enough to give back real-time results from facial recognition software, it's getting faster all the time, but while it's not quite ready to be used by advertising and marketing companies, that's not stopping them.  There's at least one company that manufactures and distributes content to video display terminals that are in specific public locations (shopping centres, subway stations) that can display targeted ads for individuals. Its software can make a surprisingly accurate guess as to an individual's gender, ethnicity, and age based on their appearance, while they can display specific ads just based on the time of day/month/year and the weather.

One Canadian company was able to increase the market exposure of Tim Hortons just based on the weather, showing ads for hot soups and coffee during cold weather, then showing ads for Ice Caps when it was warm outside.  Like Spielberg said, "Television watches us."

1: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
Brands and products referenced: Rubik's Cube, Marvel Comics

This film is partly responsible for the resurgence of the Rubik's Cube, thanks to a scene in which the protagonist Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) solves one of them for an otherwise uninterested investment banker, who then offers him an internship with his company.

The film itself is biographical, although the Rubik's Cube incident was allegedly Will Smith's creative touch, having an interest in Rubik's Cubes himself (although he apparently learned how to solve the cube specifically for the film).  The puzzle is a universal icon, as most of us who grew up in the 80s remember having one, and also remembering peeling the stickers off.  As the film also takes place in the 80s, having the Rubik's Cube appear is appropriate and timely.

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