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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: Is product placement in movies and TV necessarily a bad thing?

This past weekend in my Leftover Links roundup, I included a link to a story in The New York Times called “Branding Comes Early in Filmmaking Process,” about how product placement in studio films is now often being arranged “before the movie is cast or the script is fully shaped.”

My reaction to the Times article was, basically, “Meh, so what else is new?” which is why it ended up as a leftover link. But EW’s Owen Gleiberman had a stronger reaction:

One of the fundamental reasons that product placement evolved the way it did is that it’s an absolutely necessary evil. Movies, or a great many of them, strive to take place in a world of minutely recognizable detail, and over the past 25 years, Hollywood has been holding a mirror up to a world in which, for good or ill, we define ourselves with ever-increasing frenzy by the brands we embrace. We are what we eat/drive/wear/Web-surf/get drunk on. Are movies supposed to ignore all that? To the extent that they have bred it, that’s a vicious cycle in which I wouldn’t want to have to say which came first, the chicken or the company that tried to place it as a product.

Gleiberman goes on to discuss “genuinely creative product placement,” such as occurs in Up in the Air (a film the Times piece also covers). It’s hard to imagine that film working as well as it does absent the real-life hotel and airline brands. Plus, the branding fees helped that low-budget film get made in the first place — that seems like a fair tradeoff to me.

My own favorite example of excellent product placement is Cast Away, which uses the extreme reliability of Federal Express to more potent effect than a fictional delivery company couldn’t have, both in making the plane crash more terrifying — FedEx planes never crash — and in underlining the character of the protagonist as nitpicky, detail-oriented, and supremely loyal: it’s a genuinely emotional moment when he finally decides to open the FedEx boxes that have washed up on the island with him, finally putting his own survival above the inviolability of the customers’ packages.

So, what do you think: Is product placement in movies and TV necessarily a bad thing?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • Kate

    I’ve never seen it as a bad thing. Actually I think it just adds more realism to see people using and eating brand names that we’re all familiar with. Making up a fictious cereal, soda, sneaker company just seems ridiculous when it would be so much easier and more believable to have a character eating Cheerios, drinking a Coke, and wearing Nikes.

  • bitchen frizzy

    I’ve seen blatant product placement in silent films. I believe films and product placement co-evolved. It’s a symbiotic relationship at this point.

    Like Kate said, avoiding product placement can be more disruptive to immersion than just using the expected product. Like when they put a soda can that has the colors of a name-brand but reads something different. I find myself ignoring the movie while I try to read what name they came up with. Or when all labels are carefully turned away from the camera – that’s contrived enough to be distracting.

  • Dan

    I’m not surprised Americans don’t have a problem with it, because it’s so ingrained in your culture now. Coke on American Idol! Which gets blurred when episodes are shown here in the UK.

    In the UK, they’re only just starting to do product placement on TV (spurred on by the fact a lot of commercial broadcasters are in trouble and need the cash.) And while I can understand the argument that it makes the fictional world feel more “real”, there ARE downsides you don’t always think about.

    For e.g — what if a writer wants to have a character mention a certain product, because it sounds funny, rhymes in his dialogue, or is in some way necessary. But… that dialogue might get cut, because the higher-ups don’t want the audience thinking money has exchanged hands with the company mentioned.

    Plus, characters can become mere instruments for companies to sell things, and it doesn’t always tally with the writing. I mean, some characters drive cars that don’t suit their personality, purely because the show has a deal with Mercedes Benz, etc. So it actually can work against the realism of a show, imo.

  • while i can agree that using “real world” products in fiction and/or films can be a sort of grounding mechanism for fantasy narratives, it can also date things pretty badly. one needs only to look at Blade Runner and 2001 to see this — most of the companies mentioned or in visual range no longer exist; and neither do many of the products. however, i can watch a film made 50 years ago, and not care one jot whether the item being used by the main character was real or not real. i don’t know what brand of cigarettes they smoke in Casablanca or Bringing Up Baby, or what brand of gin they use, or even who makes the clothes. it doesn’t matter. i accept that product placement is a part of paying for movies to get made, but it really doesn’t add that much to the actual movie. Reeses Pieces, if they had been M&Ms or malted milk balls wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the theme, acting and our rememberance of ET. it was funny at the time; means nothing now.

  • JoshDM

    I heard about the “Secrets of the Mountain” Wal-Mart-sponsored TV movie coming out, and was told from a source that they seriously force-fed a ton of in-film advertising and product placements into it, altering it from the original, completely placement-free script.

  • Lisa

    If it takes you out of the movie / tv show, then it’s a problem. Like the Perrier truck in the first James Bond Pierce Brosnan did – all I could think was I bet that paid for this entire stunt. I agree with Kate, to a certain extent, as when they do make up names for brands, it seems silly to not just use a real one. However, on the other side of the Atlantic, we have different brands of our own, anyway and I can’t really say that it affects me. My favotite ficitious brand is the Dharma branded stuff in Lost, especially the Apollo bars.

  • bitchen frizzy

    James Bond, heh. James Bond movies have always been loaded with product placements. It’s almost a tradition.

  • Heh. I remember thinking how hilarious it was that Fight Club–which was promoted by critics as a critique of our overly materialistic society–seemed to be a thinly disguised ad for Ikea–a company which was virtually unheard of by most people in my part of the country prior to the release of that movie. (SPOILER for Fight Club to the few people out there who haven’t seen it yet but plan on seeing it soon.)If that wasn’t funny enough, one of the key events in that movie involved Tyler Durden’s group blowing up a building marked by a company name which had recently ceased to exist due to a company merger. (At the time the movie came out, I was employed by the company it merged with so I knew about this.)

    Granted, when I say funny, I mean “funny” in the sense of “unintentionally ironic” and not “My word! Watching buildings blow up is hilarious! It’s a shame we don’t see this stuff happen in movies more often.” But I’m guessing some of you know that already.

    I don’t know what brand of cigarettes they smoke in Casablanca or Bringing Up Baby, or what brand of gin they use, or even who makes the clothes. it doesn’t matter. i accept that product placement is a part of paying for movies to get made, but it really doesn’t add that much to the actual movie. Reeses Pieces, if they had been M&Ms or malted milk balls wouldn’t make a bit of difference to the theme, acting and our rememberance of ET. it was funny at the time; means nothing now.

    Yes, if nothing else, old movies offers guidelines on how not to do this type of thing since we’ve all seen old films and TV shows give shout-outs to then-current products that were no doubt amusing at the time but no longer as entertaining to modern audiences. Indeed, it’s depressing sometimes to watch old Simpsons episodes and watch how often a reference to a then-current ad campaign induces more head-scratching than laughter–even if you’re old enough to remember said ad campaign.

  • I remember seeing some of those old black and white TV shows shilling for cigarette companies. You knew what George Burns smoked, even if I don’t remember. Luckies, I think? Lucky Stripes?

    But I don’t care if they put products in the movie or not, as long as it doesn’t break the flow of dialogue or story.

  • Parrish

    I only get taken out of the scene when the products being used are designed to take on the appearance of real-world brands. A red and white soda can with COLA in an ornate script always looks sloppy.

    The business of set design has grown fairly developed at this point. There are numerous shows where I’ve seen the same fake brands of beer. One recent episodes of Always Sunny and HIMYM, I saw the same label for a Blind Fox Lager. The brand doesn’t exist, and in researching it I found that it was used on a few other shows.

  • e

    I guess I notice it on TV more, not as engrossed at home as in the movie theatre. I think recently in Modern Family, near the end, the mom was driving in her … Toyota…?? (the placement obviously worked well), and it was clearly a tacked on advertisement, as she talked about its features. I think Psyche might have done something similar, if it’s truly overt, I’d prefer the 30 rock joke method than anything else.

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