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.
“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947, b/w). The beloved holiday favorite about Santa Claus that won Edmund Gwenn an Oscar for the role also serves to advertise two famous Manhattan department stores, Gimbels and especially Macy’s.
“Roman Holiday” (1952, b/w). Audrey Hepburn won the best actress Oscar for her first starring role in this romantic comedy, which was a huge box-office hit. She plays a princess-in-hiding befriended by journalist Gregory Peck, and their romp through Rome on a Vespa motor scooter helped that company see a huge spike in sales that year.
“One, Two, Three” (1961, b/w). James Cagney stars in this wry Billy Wilder satire as a Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin during the Cold War, and Coke is referred to all over the place. There’s also a very funny closing gag that gives a plug to Pepsi.
“40 Pounds of Trouble” (1963). This cute Tony Curtis-Suzanne Pleshette family comedy is a reworking of “Little Miss Marker” as a casino manager is saddled with a mischievous little girl. And a lengthy stretch of the film takes place in Disneyland before it was even a decade old, the first movie allowed to film there. Surprisingly, it’s a Universal film, which now competes with Disney in the theme park business.
“The Italian Job” (1969, G/2003, PG-13). This caper action/comedy features Michael Caine in the early version and Mark Wahlberg in the remake, but both films put BMC Mini automobiles to comic advantage in the climactic heist sequence.
“Mac & Me” (1988, PG). Here’s an excerpt from my 1988 Deseret News review of this “E.T.” clone: “Being aware that (this film) was partially funded by McDonald's, I expected some plugs for the hamburger eatery, but I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie that is as crass a 90-minute commercial as ‘Mac and Me.’” Coke also gets a plug as a sort of elixir of life for aliens.
“The Wizard” (1989, PG). A troubled young boy — with an unnamed affliction that appears to be a form of autism — is a video game wizard, so an older brother takes him on a road trip to Los Angeles for a high-stakes competition. Every game on display is a product of Nintendo, which is also the event’s sponsor, and since this is a Universal production, it should come as no surprise that the studio’s theme park just happens to be the site where the contest is held.
“Reality Bites” (1994, PG-13). Janeane Garofalo’s character in Ben Stiller’s ensemble relationships comedy-drama works at The Gap, and that store and its logo are quite evident throughout the film.
“Bye Bye Love” (1995, PG-13). This comedy-drama follows three divorced weekend fathers (Matthew Modine, Paul Reiser, Randy Quaid) who pick up and drop off their kids at McDonald’s as a sort of neutral ground, and an older character (Ed Flanders) gets a job at McDonald’s working for a teenage manager. Follows the “Mac & Me” playbook as a long Quarter Pounder commercial.
“Cast Away” (2000, PG-13). Tom Hanks is marooned on a deserted island in Robert Zemeckis’ modern-day twist on “Robinson Crusoe,” and since Hanks plays a Federal Express employee, there are lots of shout-outs to FedEx. And a Wilson volleyball literally becomes a character in the film.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parents Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com