Sunday, September 25, 2011

Product Placement Before It Was Cool

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.


leor said...

i don't know if this has been asked before regarding Volunteers, but is the Simpsons episode "Missionary Impossible" partly an homage to the movie? for example, Homer escapes to the South Pacific to escape a debt; he opens a bar in a hut...

am i reading to much into this and it's just a coincidence, or is there something subtle there?

John said...

The Jimmy Cagney-Billy Wilder comedy "One, Two, Three" is still the ultimate in Coca-Cola product placement in a feature film. At least until the final scene.

Tod Hunter said...

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.

Although the question about the Volunteers scene being a corporate cross-plug is valid, the ownership of Tri-Star is more complicated than that.

Tri-Star was a joint venture of Columbia Pictures, HBO and CBS. Columbia was owned by Coca-Cola at the time of Volunteers (it was bought by Sony in 1989). CBS pulled out in 1985 and HBO left in 1987.

TriStar is now completely owned by Columbia/Sony.

I was working at Columbia at the time (sort of, I was working at Merv Griffin Enterprises and he sold out to Columbia in 1986) and had a serious interest in this.

Anonymous said...

With great respect, Ken, one minor quibble: Tri-Star wasn't owned by Sony at the time. It was Coca-Cola, full stop.

Sony didn't buy Coke's Hollywood stake (Columbia, Tri-Star, etc.) until 1989 (although they did buy CBS Records in 1987), and never owned Coca-Cola itself---Sony had become a hugely successful company by 1989, but even then it wasn't even close to being big enough to ever own Coca-Cola outright, although the reverse would certainly have been possible.

The scene's inclusion in a Tri-Star film might well have been coincidence (and I'm certain it was, given that when you originally wrote it, Coke didn't even own Columbia / Tri-Star, and in fact Tri-Star didn't itself exist until 1982), but I'm afraid the suspicions of overt product placement can't be explained away with Sony ownership.

Larry said...

I've always felt we need more product placement. Films take place in a generic world I don't recognize. Every time someone pulls out a beer can with no name on it, I'm taken out of the story. All around me I see trademarked products and businesses, so why shouldn't they be represented in movies?

Mac said...

There's now a product-placement technique which graphically inserts items into old shows. There was a recent repeat of "How I Met Your Mother" from 2007, with a DVD of "Zookeeper" on a shelf in the background.

Which I suppose brings up the issue of time-travel as well as the rights and wrongs of product-placement.

Michael in Vancouver said...

I bet, though, if Beth had been offered a Pepsi, someone at the studio, somewhere along the way, would have made you change it to Coke. Although nobody asked you to write the scene that way, I'm sure they silently appreciated the free plug.

The "lifesaver" line is what clinches it as looking like a plug. However, after meeting many Americans abroad, it's shocking how many of them judge a foreign country by how accessible their homeland fast-food products are. I can believe someone would react that way to finding a Coke, KFC, or McDonalds in Thailand.

Anonymous said...

Were they already together when this movie was made, or were you the matchmaker?

SkippyMom said...

I know you have newer readers and like to repeat stuff occasionally so they can enjoy it too, but reading through your archives this subject seems to come up a lot.

You just appear to be so bothered that you were accused of product placement and you feel the need to defend yourself that it was just accidental. [again and again and again]

We get it. We understand. Honest. You could always put a link on your sidebar that says "I swear I was not a shill for Coca Cola" then you wouldn't have to repost this so often.

scottmc said...

Having recently seen VOLUNTEERS on cable the scene inspired another question;'As Time Goes By'is played at the end of the scene. Was that in the script,would the rights be too much to use it now and would some studio executive think it was too old a reference and want you to use a more recent song?

Kaleberg said...

John: You beat me to the ultimate Coca Cola placement movie joke. I was going to go with The Coca Cola Kid.

Mac: Now you are scaring me. Some day I'll get to watch that scene with Dr. Pepper.

Cap'n Bob said...

Coca-Cola also played an important part in a scene from Dr. Strangelove. At least, a Coke machine did.

Barbara C. said...

The worst product placement has been the last few years on ABC soaps. There would be some scene going on and right in the middle of an otherwise uncluttered counter would be some product that the rich fancy schmancy character wouldn't touch in a million years. The cameras would do everything but zoom in on it fifteen times. All it needed was some cheesy line like from a 1950's advertisement. (Erica Kane: "Well, you know Kendall, when I make my cakes I only use Arm & Hammer baking soda."

Tom Mason said...

"Well, I think I’ve put in the hours, don’t you?"

Makes me laugh every time.

miles_underground said...

As I recall it, Tom Hanks offers her the Coke to keep her from leaving and that's the thing that turns her around. As someone who grew up in Atlanta, I'll say that scene seemed perfectly natural to me.

cadavra said...

Similarly, in THE HELP, Celia offers Minnie a Coke. It's the first sign that she doesn't understand whites weren't supposed to treat the maids as equals.

Wilder always said--perhaps jokingly--that he did ONE, TWO, THREE because Coke complained after he made Gary Cooper a Pepsi exec in LOVE IN THE AFTEROON. He was rare in that era for using real brands: in THE FORTUNE COOKIE, Lemmon works for CBS and Ron Rich plays for The Cleveland Browns.

Andy Charity said...

I especially notice in films from the 30's and 40's, there is NEVER a recognizable brand. (Or of course even a toilet bowl, not even in THE CROWD far as I can see, which has a famous story about L.B. Mayer being insensed that an MGM film had one in it).And any cash handled is obviously funny money with no resembalance to a real bill.

Finally, I notice in trailers for the new Great Gatsby that the (now gone) Astor Hotel in Times Square has a different name on its CGI sign. Bit of a puzzler.