When Product Placement Goes Too Far

ARTICLE: Product placement is considered a necessary evil and potential savior for the advertising industry, but sometimes the concept gets in the way of the art form. I don’t usually mind subtle placement of products into entertainment, such as Apple’s notebooks being found in almost every TV show of the past decade, or the iMac showing up on every desk in Dawson’s Creek, but the recent creative and financial flop The Island took the concept way too far.

Beyond the fact that the movie was a stinker, and a hodgepodge of better movies like Logan’s Run, one of the most annoying things that kept kicking me out of my suspension of disbelief was the raft of illogical and blatant product placements. Apparently clones meant for the slaughter need brand identification of the fact they’re drinking Aquafina water, or wearing Puma athletic shoes.

Most notably jarring was the giant Microsoft XBox backlit logo signage in the common area for the clones for their “evening fight games,” where they have been raised to think they are in a protected nest in a post holocaust world where the air outside will kill you. So, it made absolutely no sense for a giant XBox logo to be found on the walls in a faux future where corporations don’t exist and the world is a shambles.

When the lead characters use a callbox in the city, and the “MSN” logo comes up to float in mid-air, it’s not unreasonable to assume that might happen. Although, the likelihood of most of the movie’s near-future tack-ons are illogical at best (we will not have floating holograms, flying hover bikes, or sky-high monorails within the next 15 years by any stretch of the imagination). I’m also a bit doubtful that MSN will be the default search tool for phone directories at public phones (ahem, if there are still public phones on street corners at all in 15 years); but “wishful thinking” product placement in a bad SF movie isn’t that heinous, compared to the rest of the package.

Hit the Gas Pedal and the Story Runs on Fumes
At least in Minority Report the futuristic car from Lexus didn’t exist in a world where cars were obsolete. Similarly the futuristic Audi in I Robot didn’t kick your brain out of the story and served to show off a really cool “grab it and rack it” parking structure (too bad the rest of the movie didn’t live up to Asimov’s vision). But, back in The Island we see every police outfit in the city driving 2005 model Dodge Magnums; presumably in the year 2019, the police will be driving 15 year old vehicles while the rich citizens have flying speeder bikes. Vehicle placement in television is a long-standing tradition, and helped sell a heck of a lot of Pontiac Firebirds during the run of Knight Rider, but the shameless product placement of cars in movies has really gotten to be a distraction. Certainly Michael Bay is known for car chases and shooting TV commercials for same, but his creative-whore practice of bringing his commercials into his movies has become a negative trademark to his films.

In Bad Boys II, the lead characters actually commandeer the car of a sports celebrity “test driving” a new Cadillac, which the Will Smith character suddenly finds to be just as good a chase car as his Porsche or Ferrari – not because it serves the story, but because it gets the car into a scene which plays to the masses. Sadly, the sorts of folks who are likely to be brainwashed by this kind of product placement are not buying Cadillacs. They also drive by a perfectly posed brand new year model Chevy Tahoe (or so it appeared) just sitting there washed and the same camera angle used in car commercials. Similarly, in The Island, the clone and his original lovingly adore a 2009 Cadillac with 500 horsepower, which looks a lot like the GM show car possibly planned for 2008 production.

GM might disagree with my complaints since their sales of cars under the Cadillac brand are up 35% over the past four years, due to making better cars and higher visibility in films like the second Matrix movie and the Bad Boys sequel.

As a car guy, I really found it very distracting in The Island to see Chrysler Crossfires parked at the front of a row of cars on a street, Dodge Magnums, and other Chrysler branded products in almost every scene where there was a vehicle. Either a new GM vehicle or Dodge is shown throughout, even in the scenes with traffic driving through intersections.

product placementAnother gratuitous placement in a bad movie was the giant weight loss product truck that just happens to be driving through the back roads in Terminator 3 (photo at right). We’ve long seen Pepsi or Coke trucks get side-swiped in TV shows and movies, but now we’re getting long lingering camera shots of trucks with brands highly visible on the sides.

Lexus has taken a more restrained approach, providing 2006 model year cars to TV shows like Las Vegas, and 24 (all the bad guys drive the nicest cars in 24).

Placed Products Get the Best Close-ups
Smart folks might already know the connection between both Bad Boys II and The Island; being produced by the same film makers — and so the annoyance level in both films is not coincidental. The makers of both movies are more focused on “product” over “art” and shamelessly build product around a marketing plan, not on the longevity of the story or performances, or for film critics. Ultimately, this leads to bad movies, and the overt product placement is only one of the elements contributing to this.

Film makers should look at well-done examples of placement, such as Minority Report, where the character going into a futuristic GAP store fit in with the storyline and served to make a statement about “personalization” with a video/holographic A.I. sales “greeter” welcoming you to the store by name and asking about your prior purchases. The retinal-scan personalization and identification aspect allowed clever placement for all kinds of products, like American Express and digital ink newspapers from USA Today.

I love movies, watch a lot of TV, and don’t mind the product placements in most cases (like Lexus in this season of 24), but these “punch you in the eyeballs” tactics in some projects are really starting to detract from enjoying even “bad” films.

If content creators, film makers, TV producers and others wish to retain some level of credibility with their audiences and to not permanently punch holes in their work with dated products, there needs to be some thought given to more subtle approaches that serve both the needs of the budget builders and the art form.

Article is Copr. © 2006 by Christopher Simmons – all rights reserved. Originally appeared on AdvertisingIndustryNewswire.com.