Director Morgan Spurlock takes product placement to its natural conclusion in his latest film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, or to give it its full title Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a film funded by the very methods he sought to expose. But product placement has been part of the movies before sound and colour;
The first recognised prominent appearance of a Red Crown Gasoline advertising logo in Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1919 comedy The Garage but it was not just the throwaway confection of the comedies that attracted the eye of the advertisers. The very first Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Wings (1927), contains a lingering and slightly unnecessary shot of a Hershey bar wrapper and the American chocolate brand went onto to hit headlines again years later, with a commercial tie in that set product placement on the path to becoming a multibillion dollar industry.
Throughout the twenties, thirties and forties American film featured appearances from a range of products from Wrigley’s gum in noir classic M (1931) to the National Geographic featuring prominently in Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Aside from the obvious financial benefit of having real products, the upfront real cash that incorporating that product into the movie will provide this is one big artistic plus. For science fiction and fantasy films using real brand names gives a greater sense of verisimilitude, anchoring futuristic fictional worlds by linking the named recognised brands from the present. For a film fan, this can have unexpected consequences, for example the rain and neon drenched street scenes from Ridley’s Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are dominated by the moving advertising hoarders that tower over Deckard during his search his replicant quarry but while these big names look like permanent fixtures in the eighties numerous companies, from Atari to RCA, that lit of the skyline had folded and crumpled well in advance of the film’s setting. More recently, Will Smith’s I, Robot (2004) incongruously shoe horned, pun intended, a very unsubtle reference to Converse with Will Smith’s investigator lovingly unwrapping a pair of vintage 2004 Chuck Taylor’s in between chasing robots in his Audi and using cutting edge JVC branded technology.
Some commercial relationships don’t seem to make sense on paper – the original The Italian Job (1969) may seem like a hymn to the mini, but the pint sized cars owners wanted no part in the production unlike their Italian rival Fiat who not only loaned the film a fleet of the cars but also allowed them to film chase sequences on the iconic test track roof their Turin factory. Fiat even offered the producers money to replace the minis with Fiats but thankfully for the nations’ bank holiday telly the producers declined.
But while the Brits displayed admirable artistic integrity the America doesn’t seem to have such qualms. Hershey’s tie in with ET (1982) was reputedly the first million dollar advertising deal, rather than pay for placement they agreed to promote the movie in the advertising but Spielberg allegedly contacted Mars regarding M&M’s before getting the chocolate giant to stump up the money to promote their Reese’s Pieces. The skyrocketing sales triggered off a massive resurgence in product placement in Hollywood. With corporations paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to have their brand promoted in the likes of Days of Thunder (1990) and Tequila Sunrise (1988).
Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002) is alleged to have smashed the record again by bringing in $20 million dollars of advertisers probably lured by the Cruise-Spielberg dream rather than the film’s dark dystopian future, and smartly editorially justified by the concept of adverts that adapt themselves to reflect the viewer’s personal tastes. Spielberg’s love of lucre extends into the projects he produces most notably the multiplicity of tie-ins showcased in the Transformers films, which earnt their director Michael Bay the coveted whore of the year title from Brand channel magazine.
But there is a worrying new trend of people rather than products paying to appear in a film. Richard Branson appeared in not just one blockbuster but two in 2006. In Superman Returns the man of steel stops Branson’ space shuttle from hurtling into the centre of packed baseball stadium, why Branson would pay for the suggestion that his cutting edge technology or why we are expected to cheer at the bearded ones salvation is never really clear. Less puzzling is his cameo in the background of an airport scene, that was cut from British Airways versions of Casino Royale, it doesn’t sell anything but does threaten to steal the prize of worse product placement from that film’s own infamous Omega watch dialogue.
Bond has always been the king of product placement; the seductive superspy has proved to be the ideal vehicle shop window for aspirational high end products. With his reputation for good taste and the finer things in life Bond sells everything from fashion to phones. And as the world economy shrinks this trend sees no sign of abating, in February this year that the producers of Bond 23 were hoping to recoup a third of the film’s budget through on screen tie-ins that would generate $45 million.
With Spurlock’s film proving that product placement can fund a whole film surely there is only one next logical step. Before the decade is out will we be paid to watch?