The Good, the Bad and the Hershey’s – The Ins and Outs of Product Placement

The hypocrisy of Fight Club that Ebert underlined creates an interesting argument about the merits of negative product placement. At its core, the film is an anti-consumerist manifesto, but it’s still full of embedded branding; so, is it hypocrisy to damn these brands while still advertising them? Or can product placement be not only essential in monetary terms, but also in the thematic and subtextual content of some films? It’s really open to interpretation; for all the viewers that praised Fight Club’s anti-materialistic philosophy, there’s probably an equal number that thought Jack’s yin-yang coffee table was kinda cool and scoured eBay for Tyler Durden’s leather jacket.

Product Placement as Realism

For my money, the most persuasive argument to the use of embedded advertising is the frequently cited ‘realism defense.’ Van Der Waldt and co state: “product placements strengthen a film’s link to real life. Product placements therefore add realism and authenticity to scenes in films. It is further argued that the use of products that consumers are already familiar with increases the credibility and power of the film as something the audience can identify with.”

It’s a fairly simple point. We all live in a branded world. Products are advertised on billboards, television and on our clothes; they appear everywhere we can imagine. So, if cinema to any extent is attempting to replicate our own world, then it makes sense that they would have the same brands throughout. Fight Club uses real brands to highlight its concerns about growing consumerism; the message could have possibly remained intact using thinly-veiled fictional products, but why should it? Surely the message is stronger and more relatable to the audience en masse if the real brands in question are shown in relation to the argument. When I think of Blade Runner, one image instantly comes to mind, and it’s one that could easily be viewed as blatant product placement.

The image neither makes me want to run out and buy as much Coke as I can carry nor damn Ridley Scott as a corporate shill. Blade Runner has an anti-corporation agenda; the billboard visualizes this theme and shows its context on the fictional world, highlighting a grim future were the average citizen toils in the rain and the mud while the untouchable corporations flaunt their power from on high. Again, like for Fight Club, a fictional company could have been invented for this purpose, but using a brand like Coca-Cola is a more succinct and relevant way of conveying this message to the audience. Even looking at examples of films that don’t have an overarching consumerist message, product placement can still be non-invasive and add authenticity to the work. Marty McFly ordering a Pepsi instead of a generic drink doesn’t take the audience out of the moment or hurt the integrity of the Back to the Future franchise, but it allows the film’s settings in both the past and future to be less alien to the audience, creating a world they can subconsciously accept and relate to, immersing the audience into the film itself.

The ‘realism defense’ however has been overused and abused by Hollywood, Michael Bay frequently cites it as the reason his films are so full of embedded advertising. Because as we all know Bay’s gaudy canon of giant talking robots, Scarlett Johansson on a flying bike and Bruce Willis detonating a nuclear warhead on a plummeting asteroid, skilfully walk the tightrope between reality and fiction with such a deft touch that product placement is essential to gel them together; or more likely its because Michael Bay simply loves flashy products and money.

The Pro of Product Placement

For this last part, I’m going to ignore any talk of how product placement can positively add factors of realism and immersion, and go back to what it’s really all about: cold hard cash. It’s really too easy to look at these brands as some kind of corporate bogeymen who creep in through the back door and attempt to defecate over every frame of celluloid they possibly can. Michael Bay recently stated it had only taken three weeks to write the script for the second Transformers film, and when you think of the sheer amount of advertising in that movie, you get the worrying feeling that perhaps more time was spent negotiating brand contracts than on the film’s entire writing process. But sometimes product placement isn’t the evil entity that’s taken up residence in Hollywood that immediately springs to mind; sometimes product placement can aid when no other funding options are available.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was second only to America for the production of domestic features, creating more than 150 films per year. In the mid 1980s, four billion cinema tickets were being sold annually, almost three times as many as in America. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, cinema attendance drastically fell, with the average cinemagoer’s previous attendance of 14 visits annually dropping to just one solitary visit per year. The Russian film industry was in financial disarray and by 1996 the country was only producing 20 films a year. Night Watch, released in 2004, ascended from the rubble of the bankrupt Russian film industry, and knowing that the glory days of financial backing had long gone, the producers had to find new ways to fund the film.

It’s of little surprise that Night Watch director Timur Bekmambetov came from an advertising and marketing background. The film, produced by the government-owned Channel One, had a final budget of roughly $4.2 million. If you’ve seen the film you know how much product placement appears throughout; it’s everywhere with Nescafé and Nokia appearing to be the two larger contributors.

But with such a modest budget and elaborate storyline, can you really blame Bekmambetov for squeezing out every penny he could? For directors and producers with no access to the huge financial resources available to the likes of Michael Bay but with as ambitious plans, in my opinion anyway, product placement is a completely suitable way of increasing the film’s budget. Night Watch’s $4 million cost seems paltry by Hollywood standards, but it’s still a million miles away from small, low budget independent productions. Websites such as BoxOfficebrands, however, allow smaller brands to connect with small independent productions to create, ideally, a mutually beneficial relationship. In a time of economic instability for both the $100 million blockbuster and the $500 short film, product placement does appear to have a necessary and potentially positive place in cinema. When used considerately, embedded advertising can offset financial pressure, allowing all directors to be less concerned with budgetary issues and ideally be free to create the best possible film that they can. And the world will be a better place, and then maybe, one day, I’ll finally get my Power Glove.

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Sean was born and continues to live in Edinburgh, Scotland. He spends his spare time watching terrible films and then complaining about them to anyone present, regardless of their interest.

You can reach Sean via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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