Recently, the intrepid crew at FilmDrunk posted this entertaining and informative primer on the history of product placement in motion pictures:
Now, I do like to think I have discerning tastes when it comes to the pop culture I consume – I probably only saw five or so of those placements in The Island before I got cranky and turned the DVD off – yet this kind of thing always interests me, if only to grok how pervasive it’s become over just the past few decades.
Just watching that FilmDrunk compilation, most of the examples they come up with (the amazing Hershey’s plug in Wings notwithstanding) are from recent films, though obviously the practice is a hell of a lot older. Still, undoubtedly product placement has gotten more aggressive as a practice toward the end of the last century, although I think a strong argument can be made that corporate sponsorships in the early days of television often blurred the lines between commercial pitch and diegetic placement. (I’ve seen at least one instance of Lucy & Ricky name-dropping Phillip Morris during the show, never mind the sponsor-shilling Lucy & Desi did that has long since been dropped from syndicated reruns):
Maybe it’s a personal fascination, but I’ve always toed a line between being irritated and intrigued by product placement. It completely depends on context, of course, and context not only varies but changes over time; where once the proud branding of Pan Am Airlines on the side of the lunar shuttle in the famous “Blue Danube” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey seemed logical, a reasoned estimate of long-distance travel in the future, now it’s prone to make one giggle as Pan Am folded exactly a decade before we actually reached the year 2001:
On the flip side, there are plenty of cases where so little thought or care goes into shoving a brand into the context of a film or TV show that it’s hard not to cringe. I’m thinking specifically of a really spectacular car chase on Alias once that made me utterly ragey every time the camera zoomed in on the Ford Escape hybrid’s brand plating on its rear. No, not exactly that far removed a placement from Lucy and Ricky’s smokes, but having such rubbed in your face during an action sequence in a series one is genuinely uber-nerdy about… well, if not trauma, then it’s a step removed. (Way worse than any old time Sydney was traipsing around the south of France and I got bounced right out of the action by thinking “Hang on, that’s Pasadena.” Those were always kinda fun, and funny.)
The argument against overt product placement is probably as strong as ever, but the underlying conditions for it could apply to any creative venture (straight-up aimed at making cash or not). If you’re gonna be ham-fisted and lazy about it, it’s 50 times more likely to result in an audience turn-off. Most importantly, from a nerd’s perspective, every time you allow actual products to invade my content, you’re eliminating the prospect for creation of a fictional brand that can be emblazoned on t-shirts, caps, and the kind of products we actually live to buy. And where would we be anyway without Duff Beer, Slurm, Brawndo, Big Kahuna Burger, Morley cigarettes, S-Mart, Stay-Puft marshmallows, the 6000 SUX and the ubiquitous Acme Corporation?
And yet, part of the reason the placements in the Back to the Future trilogy worked so well is they were allowed to not only elicit laughs but advance the plot. (I still want my hoverboard, Mattel.) The irresistible product placement joke in Repo Man is that there is no product placement, only a sea of generic brand labels to emphasize Otto’s turgid existence. (Granted, Zander Schloss singing that early 80’s 7-Up jingle cuts through the monotony like a nasally knife. Rather doubt 7-Up paid for that placement, though…) There are even rare instances where a placement ends up, in time, so zeitgeisty and cool that it becomes a geeky commodity: Witness the recent ultra-limited-edition repros of Ellen Ripley’s forward-styled Reeboks from Aliens. (Setting aside that I haven’t got the resources to land a pair of my own, I can’t stress enough that if I did… man, I would wear the holy living shit out of these):
So product placement, evil? Not always. Perhaps more often than not, but if handled with a modicum of thought as one might treat any other part of the creative process, its capacity to irk is vastly diminished. With that, I give you a clip that I’m frankly stunned didn’t make it into FilmDrunk’s compilation, but I can only labor under the assumption that Clooney’s mullet scared them off…