We’ve all been ripped out of the immersion of a film or television show at one point or another by egregiously placed product promotions. Whether it’s everyone’s favorite anti-hero Francis Underwood commenting on a random Playstation Vita or spunky teen detective Veronica Mars namedropping Venus razors, we’ve come to expect a certain level of indirect advertising in our favorite shows and movies.
Typically, this kind of marketing flies beneath the radar. It’s ephemeral, brief, and fleeting. Like the life of a mayfly, it is destined to die before it can come to understand the circumstances of its own birth. Such is the nature of product placement, that strange, ambiguous area where art and commerce mingle; where the creator’s vision and the corporate agenda do a special kind of dance and — through that most unlikely of unions — produce a thing that is neither.
It’s all right, okay, we get over it. We tolerate it because it pays the bills, keeps the lights on and grants creators the funding to — mostly — produce the stories that we love. But there is a chance, as with everything, that something unexpected may occur. That the offspring may, in some way, favor one parent over the other. When this happens, the end product often bears only the palest resemblance to its artistic creator.
When this happens, commercial art is transformed into little more than an artistic commercial.
And so, here, we celebrate the unexpected. We look towards those unions of art and commerce that leaned a little heavily to the side of their corporate sponsors. From those tech-savvy Capulets and digital Montagues seeking love on the face of a prismatic, shrink wrapped disc, to a band of intrepid interplanetary exterminators with lustrous, dandruff-free hair, we raise our glass to the six least subtle examples of product placement in film history.
AOL Stars In You’ve Got Mail
Anyone who cut their teeth during the early years of the Internet can still hear the siren’s call that was America Online’s (AOL) email notification. In 1998, AOL and Warner Bros. leveraged that familiarity into a $65 million film starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. In a classic Romeo and Juliet tale with a twist, Hanks, the heir to a vast conglomeration of bookstores, meets Ryan, the owner of a local independent bookstore.
Unaware of their differences thanks to the awesome anonymity-granting powers of AOL, an online romance blossoms and begins to flourish between the two. An exact figure was never discussed in regards to the equally unlikely romance between AOL and Warner Bros, but online advertising strategist Evan Neufeld estimated that “you could typically see a deal like this in the $3 to 6 million range.”
Taco Bell Stars In Demolition Man
A refreshing example of product placement handled correctly, Demolition Man stars Sylvester Stallone as an LAPD sergeant sentenced to a cryogenic prison, eventually getting revived in 2032. Everyone in the year 2032 is clueless. They are stupid, which makes sense because according to one critic “Demolition Man is awesomely stupid.” The utter simplicity and sluggishness-of-mind of the population is probably responsible for the film’s best sequences and is absolutely responsible for all of Stallone’s enraged outbursts.
All stupidity aside, what makes the product placement in Demolition Man work is that the movie distances itself from anything resembling seriousness. In a world filled with moronic, gullible people, it’s not surprising at all that Taco Bell becomes “the restaurant.” It’s a natural evolution of the brand. We — the viewer — can look at that little corner of the Demolition Man universe and say, “Yeah, good, everything looks about right over there.”
GM Stars In Transformers
The unofficial king of product placement, Michael Bay, paired with multinational company General Motors (GM) in 2007 to create what some claim is the longest and most expensive car commercial in history. The project, Transformers, took the beloved 1980s toy line and shoehorned it into the 21st century. Bay’s vision saw the Autobots and Decepticons transforming even before they hit the big screen. In one of the most egregious examples, one of the franchise’s most prominent robots, Bumblebee, is transformed from his iconic 1980 form — a Volkswagen Beetle — into a 2008 Concept Camaro.
The product placement in Transformers was so transparent that Dino Bernacchi, GM’s associate director of branded entertainment defiantly claimed, “You’re going to see these cars as the heroes. You’re not going to see the other actors, these cars are the stars, literally, in the movie.”
Nintendo Stars In The Wizard
“I love the Power Glove. It’s so bad.”
One of the most memorable lines from 1989’s The Wizard is instantly hilarious to anyone who has ever, in fact, used the Power Glove. What follows is essentially a three-minute-long product demonstration for Nintendo’s newest gadget. A commercial within a commercial: in The Wizard, it’s commercials all the way down. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the film ambles in search of a compelling plot by opening scenes within scenes in a way that seems to have been singularly designed to promote new and upcoming Nintendo projects.
In the film’s final showdown, leather-clad bad boy Lucas Barton faces off against the autistic Jimmy Woods in a game of Super Mario Bros. 3, a game which had yet to be released in the United States but would — to nobody’s surprise — find its way to store shelves two months later at the perfect midpoint between the film’s release and the holiday shopping season.
FedEx Stars In Castaway
According to FedEx, the idea of a film based on the crash of a FedEx plane caused company officials to have “a heart attack at first” but in a decision that cost them absolutely nothing, they allowed 20th Century Fox to cast the company as Tom Hanks’ employer in Castaway. Hanks stars as a FedEx employee stranded on a deserted island who — though he ends up rummaging through most of the packages he was intended to deliver — shows an almost religious devotion to keeping one package sealed.
In the film’s closing moments, Hanks props the mysterious package against its addressee’s door and departs. It was this moment — perhaps — that ultimately convinced FedEx officials of the uplifting, inspiring and overall positive tone of the film and led to their decision to allow their brand’s imagery. In the end, their decision paid off: they paid 20th Century Fox nothing for the advertising and the company saw an increase in brand awareness overseas.
Head & Shoulders Stars In Evolution
When it comes to product placement, 2001’s Evolution decided to dispense with subtlety. As the movie winds down, after a nitrogen-based alien race has been dispatched, the film’s stars — David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, and Seann William Scott — bring the movie to an end by starring in an actual commercial for Head & Shoulders shampoo.
According to the trio, “fighting the alien menace can be tough work and so’s keeping your hair clean, shiny and dandruff-free.” The group then recommends keeping “Head & Shoulders… round the house” before one of the aforementioned nitrogenous aliens closes out the show with a deafening roar. Receiving lukewarm reviews, Evolution raked in a cool $98 million at the box office and no doubt informed an entire generation on the proper way to combat and dispose of an alien species.
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