Editorials, Film

Buy and Large: An Argument That Is Simultaneously For and Against Product Placement

– Nathan

Being the pretentious person that I am, I listen to NPR, and while I was listening to Marketplace Morning Report the other day, I heard a story about the upcoming James Bond film and more specifically Mr. Bond’s drink of choice. It appears whatever powers that be have decided to end the tradition of having Bond drink a shaken martini, and are instead placing a Heineken in his hand. Now, I understand that MGM is having serious financial troubles and may want to pick up some extra cash on the side through product placement, but this just bothers me. There’s the obvious level on which it bothers me, the level at which it probably bothers most people, which is that it breaks a long-standing tradition in terms of the character. The martini helps to build Bond’s character as a mysterious and refined individual, not an “everyman” that drinks beer. But it also bugs me on another level.

My second qualm is that it disrupts the flow and construction of the movie- it turns character development into cheap exploitation. The martini is essential to Bond’s character, as it shows how classy he is. Bond wouldn’t drink a beer, because he is more experienced and more refined, he has better taste. I don’t have a problem with product placement if it is used properly, and this is a clear misuse of product placement. It shows an overlooking of story development in favor of commercial appeal, perpetuated by the idea someone apparently planted in our brains, that film is the “commercial” art, the cheap one. By some high-minded academic bias that we collectively look down on film, see it as easy, an advertising ploy, a new market. We see it as something that should be cheap and accessible and easy to participate in, and when it isn’t, when it makes us think, we get mad. Test audiences, huge marketing campaigns, re-cutting of completed work; this isn’t something you see in your friendly neighborhood art gallery. When product placement is used as a way to turn a work of art into a toy, then I have a problem with it. However, if a director wants to use it as an extension of realism, I have no problems with it at all.

One of the most notable examples of product placement in film is in E.T., with the now infamous Reese’s Pieces, blah blah blah, you know the story. This is a perfect example of how to properly use product placement. Elliot does not lure E.T. in with Reese’s Pieces to discuss their virtues or laying out the ingredients or nutritional facts; he only uses them because they would be something a normal family would have in their home. This use of product placement is a very Spielberg-ian trope, as he is a filmmaker who is partial to images of busy and bickering suburban families. Overall, it adds to the feel of the film and establishes Elliot’s family as a typical one.

I should also bring up in this post Wayne’s World, which in one famous scene used an onslaught of product placement for comedic effect. If this scene were serious, it would be a perfect example of when I do not like product placement. I do not think it should be used when it becomes an advertising campaign. When it is used to achieve realism, I support it whole-heartedly. Here’s an example of proper usage from the depths of my mind: let’s say a character is looking for something in a grocery store, and we see a shot of him rummaging through various products. In my opinion, product placement could be used perfectly here if the products we see him going through are real, and I would support its use, because it achieves greater realism. However, if the character begins saying things like “Kraft Macaroni and Cheese! What a delicious little blue box, with only such-and-such number of calories! That’s quite a steal, and it tastes good, too!”, it has crossed a line and become an advertising ploy.

If Sam Mendes and others behind the upcoming Bond film want to use real products to create a real world, I support their efforts. But in giving 007 a Heineken, that doesn’t seem to be what they intended. Product placement, despite what many may say, can be used successfully and for a good purpose, but in most cases, it isn’t used that way. And when it’s used in those cases, I am completely against it.

HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER:

I’m hijacking this post to put in my own two cents; I hope that’s okay. In this age of ubiquitous piracy, the big entertainment companies will most likely turn more and more toward product placement to make up for the money they lose in actual purchases of their products, so it’s more important now that we examine what is and isn’t okay in product placement. One of the most frustrating things about film is that it’s a medium controlled by money; whereas an author can write a book or play for free, a movie can cost millions of dollars to make, so the creative talents behind them have to collaborate with people with money to get their film made. Unfortunately, while the creative staff of a movie or television program mostly focus on making the film as good as possible, the financial staff focus mainly on making the most marketable product, and this can be detrimental to the work. Generally speaking, studios want to create as safe a product as possible, with broad appeal and little chance for controversy; essentially, toning down films makes money. Fearing that the American public would be uncomfortable rooting for a hero who happened to be the son of the devil, the executives behind Hellboy tried to alter the film’s premise so that the titular demon was instead a normal man who could turn into Hellboy, a la the Hulk; thankfully Guillermo del Toro was able to fight this change. This executive meddling is also very prevalent in product placement, as greedy executives often try to shoehorn in product placement at any possible opportunity, regardless of its impact on the work’s artistic quality. Last season, the high-tension chess game that was Breaking Bad was interrupted a few times so that the audience could see Jesse playing his new favorite video game, Rage, and so that we could see how awesome the new Dodge Challenger is.

Product placement can be a good thing; it makes us feel that the characters on screen are a part of the real world rather than just imaginary. It would have been jarring if John Travolta’s famous monologue about McDonald’s had been replaced with a speech on some imaginary burger chain because it would have pulled us out of the film’s world and reminded us, hey, these are just characters after all. In a word, product placement should be natural. Product placement stops being harmless and becomes detrimental to a work when it doesn’t fit with the work’s universe. Why is Jesse so obsessed with Rage? And does everyone in Albuquerque have an orgasm when the Dodge Challenger is mentioned? In the case of Breaking Bad, the product placement doesn’t work because it interrupts the show to advertise for a few minutes. Good product placement should make the world of the work it’s in feel more natural by contributing a sense of realism, but the product placement on Breaking Bad last season did the opposite, reminding us that it’s just a show put on the air to make money after all.

-Alec

Aaaaand MC Nathan is grabbing back the mike to throw in a little response to Alec’s comments. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll ever get away from product placement because of the nature of the beast. Film, like Alec mentioned, is more of an industry than any other art. It’s not the creation of one person, it is an incredibly collaborative effort, although it may be the imaginative creation of an individual. Movies have to make money, and as ticket prices increase while tickets sales are going down, we’re going to see films become incredibly involved in finance even more than they have been in recent history. Not to get too preachy, but I think we are about to enter a definite era of conflict between the studios and filmmakers. And that’s not saying we aren’t already in one, as Harvey Weinstein’s filthy hands proved back in the 90s, but this is going to be a big stand-off, similar to the beginning of the last new wave in the late 50s. Filmmakers are going to have to fight to their last miniscule ounce of strength in order to defend their vision, and it’s going to get worse than the Hellboy issue above, or anything Weinstein did with filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch or Abbas Kiarostami. Either the studios will win out, or the artists will, and by golly, let’s hope it’s the artists.

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