Thursday, October 21, 2010

The truth about product placement, or "things go bitter with Coke"

Sometimes a Friday question warrants an entire post. Like this one:

Stephen asks:

How do feel about product placement in shows? What were your experiences with it in your shows? Were you ever asked to feature something ridiculous (e.g. high-end sports gear in M*A*S*H)?

No one from Nike ever approached us on MASH. Damn!  I could have used the shoes.

COL POTTER:  Klinger, you horse's patoot!  Of course your dogs are gonna blisters in those high heels.  Son, what you need is Nike Air Pegasus+ 27 shoes, especially if you're going on guard duty!

But seriously, in today’s marketplace product placement is here to stay. Since so many viewers fast forward through commercials the only way an advertiser can get his product seen is by integrating it into the show.  And that’s fine until it overrides creative decisions. If you have a scene in a restaurant that works great but you’re told you have to move it to a Home Depot because they paid a load of cash then you’re crossing a line. 

And I fear that’s coming.

But if Dexter wants to cut up his bodies with an Earthquake-43cc 2 Cycle Auger Powerhead, whatever. 

There’s an even more insidious use of product placement – after the fact. They can now digitally insert products into already filmed scenes. This is especially troublesome for the actors.

Let’s say it's an episode of FRIENDS and we’re in Rachel’s bedroom. Revlon products are strategically placed throughout the room. Now Clairol is just about to make Jennifer Aniston their spokesperson for a gazillion dollars. But suddenly they pull out of the deal because of Jennifer’s association with Revlon. See where that might get sticky?

The only time my partner David Isaacs and I were involved in product placement we got crucified for it. It was on the movie we wrote, VOLUNTEERS.

Tom Hanks plays Lawrence Bourne, a rich preppy asshole who ducks a gambling debt by joining the Peace Corps in 1962. There he encounters earnest Beth Wexler (Rita Wilson).  They're stationed in a tiny village in Thailand.  Lawrence & Beth get off to a horrible start (natch) but as the movie unfolds they begin to thaw (also natch) and we needed a device to break the ice. This is the scene and then I’ll explain the fallout.



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.


In doing research for the screenplay we learned that one of the things volunteers missed most from back home was Coca Cola.

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.  We were accused of shamelessly plugging Coca Cola.  We were called whores.  We were called cowards.  Pretty much everything but child molesters.  Today we'd be called visionaries. 

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


Troy said...

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

Good idea. Then the following ad campaign would have made even more sense:

"Have a toke and a smile."

Mac said...

So Nehi wasn't flooding the studio with bribes to keep Radar drinking the stuff?

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

I don't think product placement is that bad, at least on american films. They don't stand out like a sore thumb.

Brazilian films, on the other hand...

Not only you have to stick product names into each scene, but the companies have to appear both on the end credits, and before the film even begins.

It takes over a minute for any film to begin, before every product and company name scrolls past the movie screen.

I'm pretty sure that also applies to films in several other countries.

Also, I find it interesting that the Hanks/Wilson scene seems a lot artificial and lifeless when reading it on paper, while it feels much better when we have the actors saying those lines.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ed.j. said...

I just saw the M*A*S*H ep that revolved around a Polaroid. I thought is was a cool way to underscore the time period.

Of course Hawkeye and BJs trying to get someone to steal Charle's tape recorder sounded like a BOSE infomercial but it was funny.


Anonymous said...

An artfully done product placement actually enhances the feel of reality when depicting a public that speaks in terms of brand names without even knowing it.
Nothing breaks the feel of reality like hearing a character use a seldom used generic word like "cola" instead of Coke, or a fake brand name.

RockGolf said...

The most egregious post-production product placement I've seen is on the Canadian simulcast of Hell's Kitchen.
Regularly last season when the contestants were in their dorms arguing about the service that night, a partially eaten submarine sandwich with the lable MR SUB in big red letter was digitally inserted to appear on the tables, as if that's what the cooks were eating on their own time.
Of course, Mr Sub doesn't even operate in California where the show is filmed.

Larry said...

There's not enough product placement in TV and movies. People are so afraid of trademark infringement and other legal problems that we end up with these weird worlds where everything seems generic.

Every day I see a ton of recognizable trademarks. Not seeing them when someone drinks a beer or eats cereal is like seeing a phone number that begins with 555.

Mac said...

British Airways edited out Richard Branson's cameo for their in-flight versions of the Bond film Casino Royale.
Like you're going to be watching it at 30,000ft and wonder if it's not too late to change your choice of airline?

Raymond said...

And yet nobody got upset at the plugs for Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, and Johnny Walker, brands which are even more specific than Coke (which has become somewhat generic).

VW: dooidere. Along with "Truth or Die", a slumber party game that never really caught on.

Hollywoodaholic said...

My favorite perfect product placement is Charmin on Survivor. People believably lusting over toilet paper.

rhys said...

Actually Tri-Star was a part of Columbia Pictures which was owned by Coca-Cola. Sony later purchased Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola in 1989 and renamed it Sony Pictures a little later.

In regards to the comments about studios being scared to include real products because of trademark infringement, that's not true. The case law is well established that referencing a trademark in a work of art is not trademark infringement. There has been a few cases over "trademark dilution" where a company claimed their product was portrayed negatively in a film - but most of those cases didn't succeed.

The real reason TV and movies don't want specific products used if they are not sponsors is because now they either want to get paid for including a product no matter what - or they don't want to piss off other sponsors by showing the products of their competitors. So if Pepsi is running ads during the the commercial breaks on a show - they don't want to have the character drinking Coke.

Shawn Ryan, the showrunner for Lie to Me, and one of the co-creators of Terriers (a great show by the way), talked about this on a podcast interview on the "Talklng TV with Ryan and Ryan" podcast. He was complaining about the networks not letting him use real products because they are afraid of alienating other sponsors.

sophomorecritic said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lou H. said...

I saw nothing wrong with Ken's product placement(s). I'm OK with almost anything unless it wastes valuable dialogue time or takes you out of the show's carefully crafted world. e.g.:

Conversation between Nadia and Jack after she comes out of a coma on ALIAS: "I see you finally got a Ford Hybrid" "Electric - good for when you need to be quiet".

Conversation between Daisy and Angela on BONES: "Why do you drive a minivan? Do you have kids that we don't know about?"
"I'm an artist, Daisy, and the Sienna has plenty of room."

Being told to write pap like this must've been awful for the writers. I hope they at least got compensated by, say, having the network giving them free rein for some other part of the episode.

benson said...

I agree with Larry. The one take really takes me out of the moment is the 555 phone prefix.

JCDavies said...

I wonder if some day the world will be so overwhelmed with phone numbers that they will have to enlist the 555 prefix.

Somersby said...

Yvette Nicole Brown was eating from a "LETS" potato chip bag last week on "Community". I had to pause it and go back to see - yup, it wasn't LAYS, it was LETS. Which, in a weird way, got me thinking more about LAYS than if she had been eating from a LAYS bag to start with. Hm. Perhaps there's some non-product placement going on by the big product placement companies!

D. McEwan said...

In the movie And GOd Spoke, a very funny mockumentary about film makers trying to film the entire Bible on almost no moment whatever (and in which several friends of mine appear), they resort to hilariously-absurd product placement to keep the cameras turning, resulting in Moses (played by Soupy Sales, who is playing himself playing Moses) coming down from the mountain, carrying the tablets with the Ten Commandments in one hand, and a six-pack of - yes - Coca-Cola in the other.

[This comment brought to you bay The fine folks at AT&T. Call your Mom today.]

[This comment typed on a Dell computer. Dude, you're hacking into a Dell!"]

[Promotional Consideration from Spiegal Catalogues. Spiegal: when you care enough to not get off your ass to shop.]

[Read more about it in Books. "Books" is a registered trademark of Sony.]

Cap'n Bob said...

I experienced a taste of this in my last novel. An editor wanted me to delete all references to real products or businesses, especially nehative ones. For example, I had my character say he had a 1965 Sunbeam Alpine that was a little sluggish on the hills (all made up by him to initiate a conversation with a mechanic). I convinced the editor that the references were perfectly legit and that many had been used in my previous book, so she relented. But sheesh!

Anonymous said...

The worst product placement is when its so out of touch of the story or characters, that you feel completely disconnected with everything that is going on. It suddenly all feels so fake and you remember Oh yeah, its just a movie/tv and laugh at how ridiculous it is instead of actually believing it and immersing yourself into the story.

And what is it all for? money from companies? Are we about to give up keeping the viewer engaged?

I love to learn about some examples when product placement has drastically altered some form of media.

Great entry!

Bob Claster said...

I was going to mention the gag in "...And God Spoke" as the funniest product placement joke of all time. I wasn't going to spoil it, though, even though there's nothing else remotely as funny in the movie. But as long as the gag has already been spoiled, you might as well know the great line that goes with it. Moses, played by Soupy Sales, descends from the mountain with the tablets and the 6-pack and says, "People of Israel: The Lord has given unto me, to give to you, these Ten Commandments, and this refreshing beverage."

RJ Battles said...

I just want to say how much I like "Volunteers"; it's one of the movies where, if I'm flipping around and it's on, I'll always stop to watch it.
It's so different from the roles that Tom Hanks usually plays and Rita Wilson was so good and pretty in it.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I've ever noticed it here, but do TV shows with products in their titles (e.g. 'The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour' - The Simpsons) still exist?

Paul Duca said...

Other than college football bowl games, I don't think so, Sephim.

Jim said...

JCDavies: Phone number oversaturation has already happened. These days, the only phone numbers that the various phone companies guarantee will remain unused are 555-0100 through 555-0199; therefore, that range represents pretty much the only phone numbers currently being used as fakes on TV and in movies.

Joe said...

I'm with RJ on this. I especially love this scene, especially as Tom Hanks -- hardly Hollywood's "Mr. Dialect" -- had his semi-blueblood accent on. In that scene, the line comes out as "a little elbow grace..."

Man, do I love this film.

PS What does it say about me that I didn't/don't consider Lawrence obnoxious? (On 2nd thought, don't tell me.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and when I said "here", I meant in Australia.

Different Jim said...

By the way, the scene in Volunteers when you had George Plimpton refuse to bail out Tom Hanks is still one of my favorite comedy scenes of all time. So wonderful. Thank you.

Tom said...

Product placement is a great thing. I don't see a reason against it. It adds to the feeling of reality AND could help to remove a lot of commercials from TV.

Anyone ever heard "Fibber McGee and Molly" on the radio? In the middle of the show, the Amos-and-Andy-Announcer Harlow Wilcox would enter the "scene" as an actual character and promote Johnsons Wax. Fibber was always annoyed by this, and the way the embedded the commercial INTO the radioplay made it actually funny.
I think, TV should be financed as much as possible by PP.