Money, Money, Money – Product Placement in Movies

From the moment some entrepreneurial bright spark cottoned on to the money-making opportunities presented by the moving image, cinema and business were forever linked.

Making movies can be an expensive business which explains why studios (and by extension filmmakers) have been so willing to offset the cost by working in a bit of product placement here and there.

An early(ish) use of product placement (in this case Hershey's chocolate) in 1927's Oscar-winning Wings

An early(ish) use of product placement (in this case Hershey’s chocolate) in 1927’s Oscar-winning Wings

The cinematic romantics out there may disregard the notion that product placement could have featured in the good old days of black and white films, preferring to believe instead that such shameless activities are a relatively new phenomenon.

They would be wrong, however. Product placement has been with us almost as long as cinema itself. As well as being the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar, 1927’s Wings also featured a plug for Hershey’s chocolate. It wasn’t just American cinema that was happy to take the corporate dollar, world cinema also got in on the act. Fritz Lang’s 1931 classic M features in one scene a blatant advert for Wrigley’s PK chewing gum.

The Internship - an example of where the product was placed but never taken awayway

The Internship – an example of where the product was placed but never taken away

While many films shoehorn in a company’s logo or one of its products so conspicuously as to distract you from what you’re watching, at its cleverest, product placement can be used so subtly as to be almost subliminal.

In other cases, such as 1992’s Wayne’s World, product placement can be used to humourous effect – still making sure to actually feature those brands of course – while Morgan Spurlock’s 2011 documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold was entirely paid for by sponsors (most notably POM Wonderful) and featured the tagline ‘he’s not selling out, he’s buying in’. Likewise, in 2000’s Cast Away, FedEx featured so prominently (as, of course, did the company Wilson) it’s difficult to disassociate the film and firm.

A more clever use of product placement, hidden inside a joke, in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

A more clever use of product placement, hidden inside a joke, in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

Recently, we’ve had one of the most barefaced examples of product placement in movie history with the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson ‘comedy’ The Internship, which essentially boils down to being one long advert for Google. Meanwhile, the newly released Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa is a more successful use of product placement. By including the product in a fairly blatant joke wherein the words “Alan Partridge drives this Ka” are emblazoned across the vehicle, not only is it part of the joke, it also gives the impression that Ford has a sense of humour and is happy to be associated with a petty, egomaniacal and lonely person such as Alan.

Below are just a few of the many, many examples of shameless product placement in the movies.

Let me know some of your worst offenders:

Mac And Me (1988)

Mac and Me

One of the weirdest, and most cynical attempts at product placement in cinema history, this E.T. rip off has to be seen to be believed. Ostensibly about an alien’s attempt to reunite with its family with the help of wheelchair-bound boy Eric, the film is actually a very thinly veiled advert for fast food chain McDonald’s. In one scene Eric and the Mysterious Alien Creature (MAC – even his name is the same as the company’s most famous burger!) go into a Maccy D’s and are met by the scary-looking Ronald McDonald before MAC, dressed as a giant teddy bear, leads an impromptu dance on the premises. I’m lovin’ it? Not really.

Casino Royale (2006)

Casino Royale

The Bond franchise has had a long association with product placement, be it a well-known vodka brand, or the long list of cars that 007 wrecks. The character’s association with watch makers Omega has been around since the Pierce Brosnan era, but came into its own when the franchise relaunched itself with the Daniel Craig-starring Casino Royale. In one scene that must have had Craig questioning his serious actor credentials, he’s sat opposite Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, who makes an observation about “former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches”, before randomly asking “Rolex?”. Bond suavely corrects her, pointing out it’s an Omega, to which Vesper can only reply “beautiful”. Like you do.

Blade: Trinity (2004)

Blade Trinity

Apple had been struggling to win the public over with the iPod since its 2001 launch and, to give the product a push, paid for it to be featured heavily in this third and final chapter in the Blade franchise about the titular blood-sucker. Blade (Wesley Snipes) is joined this time around by sexy vampire hunter Abigail (Jessica Biel), who can’t seem to be able to kick vampire ass without listening to her trusty MP3 player. In one galling scene, she takes time out to download songs from iTunes and create a playlist before once again going into battle. Safe to say, it’s one of the more shameless examples of product placement in the movies.

I, Robot (2004)

I, Robot

Set in 2035, it is of course entirely coincidental that Will Smith’s detective Del Spooner has a love of Converse trailers circa 2004, the year in which this sci-fi movie based loosely on Isaac Asimov’s more considered series of short stories was released. Director Alex Proyas must have been swallowing some of his own sick when he filmed Smith lovingly caress the shoe box, open it up like a kid unwrapping a Christmas present and slide those new wheels on his grateful feet. Like so much jarring product placement, the scene has absolutely no relevance to the film and makes you grate your teeth at the thought of handing money over for a glorified advert.

What Women Want (2000)

What Women Want

Before Mel Gibson destroyed his career with ill-advised religious comments and run-ins with the law, he made this high concept comedy in which he plays Nick, who acquires the ability to hear womens’ thoughts following an accident with a hairdryer. Nick works in advertising and wows his bosses by stealing rival Helen Hunt’s thoughts for a Nike campaign. The whole Nike thing is woven into the plot in an attempt at ‘brand integration’, but you’re left with a bad taste in your mouth when you realise it’s being rammed down your throat.

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12 comments

  1. Tom · August 13, 2013

    very interesting read. I think I get more easily duped by product placement in movies these days (or maybe I’ve always been unobservant), since I don’t get thrown by it until I actually get to study its usage in great posts like this one. The one in I, Robot is completely egregious — no shame whatsoever! And while I do agree that The Internship basically was a commercial shot for Google, it worked to some effect for me because everything that happened was magnified by the fact that it is written around the company itself. a successful experiment, even though equally the most egregious product “placement” of all time. Man of Steel had some “nice” ones!

    • Three Rows Back · August 13, 2013

      Oh yeah, I think modern day blockbusters and product placement are joined at the hip. I remember Iron Man’s shameless use of Burger King; that’s one egregious example!

  2. mikeyb185 · August 13, 2013

    Weirdly I wrote my degree dissertation on this very subject! I found out there was originally a scene in Die Hard where John uses a black and decker drill in a ventilation shaft. Then Black and Decker saw how violent the film was and demanded the scene was cut!

  3. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · August 13, 2013

    Nice piece mate! I remember the I, Robot one, that was terrible. I did buy some black leather Converse though, so I guess it worked! There was quite a fuss about Skyfall as well, having Bond and others drink Heineken I think it was on a regular basis. It can be annoying at times if not done well but I guess it helps get films made so we can’t complain too much. And as you say, Wayne’s World got it spot on!

    • Three Rows Back · August 13, 2013

      Cheers as always. Bond is a repeat offender when it comes to product placement.

    • Ewan M · August 13, 2013

      Speaking of beer drinking, I often notice that a lot of people drink Budweiser in movies and TV and I can’t tell whether it’s paid product placement, or if it’s used because it’s a beer that lots of people drink (for whatever reason), or a comment on the character drinking it. I always take it as the last… (Sorry Budweiser-lovers 😉 Anyway, nice post.

      • Three Rows Back · August 13, 2013

        Thanks! I imagine it’s more to do with product placement than picking a generic beer out by the filmmakers.

  4. Tim The Film Guy · August 13, 2013

    Haha Casino Royale had a lot 😀

  5. ckckred · August 16, 2013

    Nice post. Product placement really bothers me, often because I feel movies should try to make their money only at the box office. I know Adam Sandler and Michael Bay are both big offenders. I do like it when movies parody product placement, such as the ones you mentioned. I remember an episode of Arrested Development jokingly put a plug in for Burger King.

    • Three Rows Back · August 17, 2013

      Thanks buddy. I’ve always equated Bay as more of a glorified accountant than a movie director.

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