Chris Hicks: Product placement in movies sometimes threatens to take over

Published: Thursday, June 20 2013 5:25 p.m. MDT

Despite coming from competing studio Universal Pictures, the 1963 comedy "40 Pounds of Trouble" was the first movie given permission to film at Disneyland. Even the film's poster plugs the theme park.

Universal Pictures

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Product placement has become a business-as-usual aspect of movies, a way of subsidizing the ever-rising cost of film production while bringing a sense of reality to the proceedings by using real brands that people recognize and with which they can immediately identify.

I remember noticing at some point early in his career that Stephen King was using actual product names in his novels, whereas popular fiction more often seemed to use generic products that obviously sprang from a writer’s imagination. Similarly, movies and TV shows back in the olden days had products with offbeat names that were obviously fictitious or were meant to spoof something that was well-known.

Although there are much earlier examples, the first time a scene in a movie registered with me as “product placement” was the 1978 “Superman” during a scene at the Kent farm when a box of Cheerios is placed on the kitchen table next to a window as dawn is breaking. It seemed to me at the time that this was an obvious advertising ploy, since we see the box carefully placed on the table so that it prominently reveals the cereal’s name — which also occurs in a follow-up shot with the camera outside looking back toward the house and the box at the window, the Cheerios logo still on display.

One of the more famous product-placement examples came four years later when "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” garnered publicity over a sequence that had young Elliott luring E.T. with a trail of Reese’s Pieces, along with the subsequent revelation that Steven Spielberg had wanted to use M&M's — but that company turned him down. Oops.

These days you won’t find a major product saying no. In fact, it’s more surprising when we don’t see a movie star picking up a Pepsi can or a Coke bottle while wearing Reebok shoes and driving a Prius to Pizza Hut.

But it’s still a bit more unusual to see an entire movie, or a big section of a movie, play out as if whatever product is being placed has signed on as a supporting character. But it happens. Think of James Bond’s Aston Martin, Dirty Harry’s 44 Magnum, the Coke bottle in “The Gods Must Be Crazy” or Harold & Kumar’s White Castle burgers.

The most prominent current example is Google, which not only provides a major plot point in the surprisingly raunchy PG-13 comedy “Internship” but also has its logo, along with several of its exclusive products, on display in wall-to-wall fashion. Years from now if this film is remembered at all, it’ll be as “that Google movie,” and no one will recall Vince Vaughn or Owen Wilson as the names above the title.

Yes, it’s unusual but not really rare. Here are some other examples of familiar brand names showing up throughout popular movies.

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