Saturday, December 06, 2008

Product Placement before it was cool

Enter the Daffy Definition Kontest. Details here.
A lot of people ask me about the Coke scene in the movie David Isaacs and I wrote, VOLUNTEERS. We took a lot of heat for it because the studio that produced it also owned the Coca Cola company. It was viewed as a shameless plug. The truth is it was a complete coincidence.

Here’s the notorious scene but first an earlier scene setting up the animosity between Lawrence (Tom Hanks) and Beth (Rita Wilson). They are flying to Thailand to begin service in the Peace Corps in 1962. Lawrence is a rich preppy who is only there because he switched places with his roommate Kent to skip a huge gambling debt. Beth is an idealistic coed. They’re about to land.



Bangkok already? I can’t believe it.

Yes, we’ve been talking now for … (checks his watch) … Ooh, ten hours.

Kent, I’m really lucky to be assigned with you.

You know, Beth, we’re going to have so much to do when we get to…

A beat.

Loong Ta.

Of course. What do you think about taking tonight for ourselves? A bit of dinner, a few drinks, see a little of the city. And then, who knows? (taking her hand) There’s only one thing we haven’t shared together yet.

Beth smiles, not taking him seriously.

Very funny.

Lawrence smiles back at her. He’s serious. She looks at him, takes her hand back.

(cool) Thank you just the same.

Oh, come on, Beth. We’ve been moony-eyed since Istanbul. Why fight it?

(flustered) Kent, why are you doing this? I thought we were becoming friends.

This is what I do with my friends.

You’ve just been trying to go to bed with me?

(checking his watch) Well, I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?

Okay. And a few months later they’re in Loong Ta, a dirt poor village of thatched huts and nothing else. We needed a way to break the ice, to start getting them together. In interviewing former Peace Corps volunteers we learned that Coca Cola was one of the things they missed most, especially if stationed in a hot jungle. So taking that info, we wrote this scene:


Beth enters to find that Lawrence has transformed the hut into an exotic, albeit small, nightclub. There are bamboo chairs and tables, plants, and a makeshift bar, fully stocked with liquor. Lawrence, wearing his dinner jacket, sits at the corner table smoking a cigarette. An old villager sits off to the side, trying his best to play, “As Time Goes By” on his primitive Thai sitar.

Welcome. I call it “Lawrence’s”.

I don’t believe it… even from you.

It was easier than you think.

How did you…?

Lawrence waves at the villager to stop playing.

A little elbow grease, a few connections and voila: Loong Ta’s first public service. Are you as proud of me as I am? Can I get you a drink?

What’s this for?

For a job well done. I’ve got Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam… the whole gang.

You’ve got liquor?

And wine. The house special is a delightfully articulate Chablis.

I haven’t seen a tube of toothpaste in two weeks and you have a bar?

Don’t fight it, Beth.

Goodnight, Lawrence.

You’re taking the narrow view again.

She starts for the door, then stops and turns back.

Do you have a Coke?

Plain, cherry, lemon or vanilla?

Plain. A plain Coke.

Lawrence reaches beneath the bar, grabs a bottle of Coke, and with much panache, removes the cap.

(handing it to her) You more than earned it.

Beth takes the Coke, looks at it, then takes a long swig.

Oh, that is fantastic… I miss these so much. Lawrence, damn you, you’re a life saver.

(toasting her with another Coke) To friends. Would you care to dance?

Beth thinks it over, takes one more good chug of Coke, and steps into Lawrence’s arms.

(to the villager) Try it again, Sam.

The sitar player strikes up “As Time Goes By” in the same monotonous way. Lawrence snaps his fingers, ordering him to pick up the pace. THE CAMERA SLOWLY PULLS BACK, and THROUGH THE WINDOW we watch Lawrence and Beth dancing slowly around the room, Beth shyly looking into Lawrence’s eyes. Electricity flickers.


We wrote that Coke scene in the first draft, 1980. It stayed in every draft and wound up on the screen. Originally the movie was set up at MGM. After a couple of years it went into turnaround, finally landing at HBO Silver Screen in partnership with Tri-Star. This was 1984. Tri-Star was a division of Sony, as was the Coca Cola company. No one from the studio ever asked that that scene be in. No one from the studio ever mentioned that scene period.

A year later the film was released and we walked into a major shitstorm.

I look back and think, all of this could so easily been avoided if he just offered her a joint.


Kathy said...

See, there's a joke, and then there's a JOKE. The story as a whole is amusing, a contrast between what we see as cynical commercialism and your honest intentions as a writer to include information you gleaned during your research. At that point, it's an amusing anecdote.

Then I got to the last line, and laughed out loud. Now THAT'S a joke.

Griff said...

Well, Ken, you and David are in pretty good company. In the fall of 1982, some months after Columbia was purchased by The Coca-Cola Company, the studio released Paul Mazursky's TEMPEST. At a Toronto Film Festival screening, an offhand line delivered by star John Cassavetes -- "I could really use a cold Sprite" -- caused the industry-savvy house to erupt in laughter. It seemed as though Coke had begun clumsily integrating product placement into scripts. A puzzled (and annoyed) Paul Mazursky stoutly denied any involvement with plugging a Coke-owned beverage. The writer-director asserted that he had asked locals what soft drink was popular in the Greek city where he was shooting; they said, "Sprite," so he used it in the picture...

Tim W. said...

What exactly is the attraction to Coke? I've tried it a couple of times and didn't like it.

More on topic, I think product placement has gotten so bad that it's impossible to use or even mention any product without people assuming that it's a paid advertisement, even when it's not.

bevo said...

Because I grew up in a world with high sugar prices, I only experienced the corn-syrup based Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper. Nasty, vulgar stuff.

While living in West Texas, I came across sugar-based Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper from a grocery store that catered to Mexicans. I was the only Anglo in the outfit, and based on the on the stares, they must have thought I was INS or DEA.

After chilling both soft drinks, I enjoy a cold drink under the hot desert sun. I understand the appeal of Coca Cola and Dr. Pepper. They were wonderful.

So, yes, I can understand your characters' desire for a real Coca Cola.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

The best product placement I ever saw before anybody knew what to call it was a movie back in the 80s, The Coca Cola Kid. It starred Eric Roberts as a marketing whiz kid from the Atlanta office for Coke, visiting Australia to improve sales. A small comedy with good performances.

The Coca Cola Company disowned the movie when they heard about it, and they maybe even sued because they had never been asked for permission to use the name and images.

Finally, the producers had to attach a message at the start which said the movie had nothing to do with Coke. In the end, though, it probably helped the image of Coke a lot, and they didn't pay a dime.

gottacook said...

bevo and others should be aware that if they shop in an area with any reasonably sized Jewish population, groceries offer Coke made with sugar, not corn syrup, at Passover every year - check the calendar, it's generally mid-March to late April. Look for bottles marked kosher for Passover; they usually have yellow tops.

Joe said...

1- The best Coca-Cola one could get in the USA these days is "Kosher-for-Passover" Coke, sweetened with real cane sugar and not [spit]corn syrup[/spit]. Mexican Coca-Cola is pretty good, but it has a bit more sugar than the Old USA version.

Blame the taxes on imported sugar and corn subsidies for this travesty.

2- My favorite product placement was the use of PanAm in the film Hook which opened the day AFTER PanAm went Ch. 11. Colossal howls of laughter in the theatre.

3- If Lawrence HAD offered Beth a joint, he could have said "I promise you. This is NOT the dung of my ancestors."

A. Buck Short said...

Ah yes, gottacook, but do you know the origin of Passover Coke? It’s because the Jews had to leave Egypt in such a hurry, nobody had time to reduce the traditional corn syrup down to its gourmet essence. So we went with the sugar. As you know, among our people, no matter where a story begins,it always ends up 4,000 years ago, with the Exodus from Egypt. I once asked a learned scholar why we couldn’t place the same emphasis on anything more recent, and he said basically, until 1967, it was pretty much the last time any Jew kicked ass.

Patrick Sheane Duncan once told us the reason he set “Courage Under Fire in Texas is that it provided the opportunity to visit the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco – he called it “the nectar of the gods.” So I guess it was the sugar-based. (The other three Waco landmarks are, Baylor, the Texas Rangers Museum, and the original AIG building – the only skyscraper to survive the 1953 tornado – without a bailout, I might add.

As you know, in much of the south, coke at least once was such a generic reference that when someone asked the counterman for a Coke, the correct reply was always, “What kind?” Not meaning vanilla, cherry or lemon, but did you want a coke coke, or a root beer, a ginger ale, orange, etc. During the depression, people were so poor down here, we Jews had to order a one-cent plain.

Maybe it’s different now, but when product placement came of age, I think there was some reluctance to use it in TV series (unless the series had the single major sponsor, or just showed the car without mentioning the name), because it was felt that might eliminate a sponsorship option for competing brands. What? Nobody realized movies also end up on TV? Or was the conventional wisdom they could always re-edit?

Incidentally, when Guber-Peters sold the studio to Sony, how many were there on the lot who went around joking the new owners would change the name to C’rumbia Pictures – 100? 1,000?

I never saw Volunteers, but it sounds both absolutely charming and hilarious. I’m going to try to go out and rent it for tonight. I get laid, I owe Ken Levine a coke. And it's a good thing the picture wasn't set two weeks ago. You never would have been able to afford enough atmosphere to fill the airport. As it is I had to reschedule all our Bangkok and Mumbai travel plans. Bummer.

KEN LEVINE said...

Another GREAT movie that revolves around Coca Cola is Billy Wilder's ONE TWO THREE. Set in Berlin in the early 60s it stars James Cagney as the head of that region's Coca Cola operations.

A. Buck Short said...

with Keenan Wynn
(3:15 in, to the end)

charlotte said...

The single greatest "product integration" ever, IMO, was on 30 ROCK:

Anonymous said...

There is one movie that would never have been the same with a Coke bottle - "The Gods Must Be Crazy". In my opinion, one of the classics.

Not to suck up too much, but I loved the scene in Volunteers as I am a complete sap about romance in film. And it made the scene more believable to me. I had friends in the Peace Corp who had written the same thing in letters home. It's the little everyday things you miss the most.

Ralphie said...

OK, OK, I give up. I'm going to pop the DVD of Volunteers in just as soon as the game is over.

Thanks again,


A. Buck Short said...

Ken will you please forward to Dan O'Day.
I realize this is sort of line jumping, but he'd never see this lost in 446 “daffynitions," and it's been driving me nuts for 2 days.

Dan, can you please tell me what joke the wv “claseres” writes for itself in Latin? Although the declension would be slightly off (like everything else of mine), but the closest I can come is a “ship thing” like some addiction Onassis and Ted Turner had? I’m thinking with a Latin pronunciation, it’s just two of things Obama had to overcome along the way to being elected president. The other would have been gender. But if my track record holds, I'm completely missing something a lot better.

Anonymous said...

okay, it took me awhile to realize. I typed with and meant without. Sorry.

D. McEwan said...

I've always been a Pepsi drinker myself. Been addicted to it from childhood, as my toothless gums can attest.

I also enjoyed the rat-a-tat farce of ONE, TWO, THREE (A movie much better than it's tells-you-nothing title), but boy, did Pauline Kael HATE it. She wrote, in part: "Machine-gun paced topical satire of east-west relations, in which the characters shout variations of stale jokes at each other - people are described as sitting around on their assets, and we're invited to laugh at the Russians for rejecting a shipment of Swiss cheese because it's full of holes."

Of course, Pauline's rant takes a hit when one of the "stale jokes" she quotes still makes me laugh: Cagney complaining that the East Germans are hijacking his shipments of Coke "And they don't even return the empties." Though I wonder if under-30s will get that line.

It was Cagney's last film before his retirement, and until he returned in RAGTIME over 20 years later, and he is worth seeing in it whether one finds the farce tiresome or hilarious. His performance makes the performances in HIS GIRL FRIDAY seem lackadaisical. I haven't seen it in decades, but would enjoy a new gander, as I remember liking it.

Word verification SHATA, which is how Pauline Kael claims Wilder created the ONE, TWO, THREE script. Or is it the world's most revoltting Christmas character?

leor said...

i feel terrible posting this as i haven't actually seen Volunteers (yet...i promise, i'm going to look for it very soon!), and hopefully this isn't a stupid question! after reading your anecdote about this scene, i immediately thought of the Simpsons episode Missionary Impossible, when Homer becomes a missionary to escape PBS. does this episode explicitely spoof Volunteers, or is it just a coincidence?

Bobomo said...

Speaking of soda pop Ken, is there a particular reason that both CHEERS and FRASIER were featured in Dr. Pepper TV spots? The FRASIER one actually features Frasier and Lilith (and actually made me giggle), and the CHEERS one was simply the theme song, but given the relationship between the shows I was curious as to why they would both show up simultaneously.

Anonymous said...

My favorite non sponsored ad is all of "josie and the pussy cats" they had ads up the wazoo in that film and didn't get a dime. because they were mocking the practice.

Roy said...

I was going to hop on here and castigate you for saying that the film company owned Coca-Cola, instead of the other way around, but enough later comments make that point plain.

All I can say is I still love corn-syrup Coke, I just love the cane sugar version at Passover a lot more, and wish they had the same dietary laws for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Though I'm sure a number of Jews hate to see me raiding the kosher displays at Publix and Kroger, loading up my cart with yellow-capped 2-liter bottles that were meant for them.

Mary Stella said...

A year later the film was released and we walked into a major shitstorm.

So, Tom Cruise holds a phone up for 30 seconds for a closeup so nobody misses the brand name . . . the two Highlanders stage their classic battle for way too long in front of a giant JVC sign... and you get a shitstorm for a reality-based product use?


OMG, I have the most perfect word verification ever (or at least for this topic: adrudie -- an obnoxious example of product placement is an ad-rudie... or we break it out like a text message and it really means ad or you die

Kirk Jusko said...

There's some early examples of product placement in Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s.

In one, the products in a grocery store comes to life. The arm on the box of Arm and Hammer soda pounds the bejesus out of a gorilla that escaped from a package of Animal Crackers.

In another, the magazines on a stand come alive. I can't remember the exact plot, but a criminal is sentenced to Life (magazine.)