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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

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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