“So powerful and cruel is Google that it’s reached out its suction-cupped sea monster tentacles to strangle a pair of formidable funnymen, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, and make them dance like sickly puppets to create a Google commercial marionette variety hour,” writes former Consumerist staffer Phil Villarreal in his review of The Internship. “The movie shows impressive restraint by waiting about 12 minutes before starting the Google product placement assault, with Vaughn Googling stuff before leaving his Chrome browser on its default Google homepage.”
We haven’t seen the flick yet because we prefer to watch our infomercials in a 3 a.m. haze while eating leftover hot wings from two nights ago. So we decided to take a more critical look at some of the movies generally considered to be in the pantheon of product placement, reviewing each for three factors — relevance to the story (Is the product something that fits into the world of the movie?); uniqueness (Is there a justifiable reason — other than money — why this brand might be used by the filmmaker?); and obviousness (Do characters go out of their way to mention/show the product?).
BLASTS FROM THE PAST
Often cited as the granddaddy of modern product-placement, the Steven Spielberg film starred a lovable long-necked alien who just happened to love Reese’s Pieces. The movie was a hit, resulting in a huge sales boost for Hershey (which stepped in when Mars said no to having E.T. chow down on M&Ms).
Relevance: 5/10 Elliot needs to use something to lure E.T. out of hiding. Candy is just as believable as anything else.
Uniqueness: 1/10 That being said, Spielberg presents no reason for using Reese’s Pieces for this purpose. It could easily have been a generic bag of gum drops.
Obviousness: 3/10 While Hershey made a huge post-release marketing push tying Reese’s Pieces to the movie, the characters don’t go around saying things like “Boy, that alien sure loves these delicious Reese’s Pieces. They’re out of this world!” But if that gets used in a sequel, I want to get paid… in M&Ms.
Mac and Me (1988)
Another lovably ugly alien showed up on screens six years later, but this one didn’t just nibble on a few Reese’s. No, the stranded creatures in this film quite literally require the refreshing taste of Coca-Cola to survive.
There is also a bizarre 5-minute dance sequence set inside of a party at a McDonald’s eatery and featuring Ronald McDonald himself.
Relevance: 0/10 There is absolutely no reason for any of the multiple Coke and McDonald’s product placements in this movie. The McDonald’s dance party comes out of nowhere and does nothing but delay the end of the movie.
Uniqueness: 9/10 Given that these product placements — and the entire movie — serve only to promote a handful of products, it’s virtually impossible to imagine other brands being featured. You’d have to change the movie’s title to “Arby and Me” or “Burger King and Me.”
Obviousness: 10/10 Need we mention the title once more?
Back To The Future (1985)/ Back to the Future 2 (1989)
Okay, so these movies didn’t do much to save Delorean, but they sure do feature an awful lot of mentions of Pepsi and Nike products. Even the third film in the trilogy, set primarily in the 19th century, includes a handful of brand-name drops.
Relevance: 8/10 Brands and products are often very intimately timed to a specific point in time, and so it would make sense that time-travel movies have some fun with popular brands.
Uniqueness: 5/10 Director Robert Zemeckis has tried to defend his specific use of Pepsi colas by saying that Coke’s branding did not change significantly enough between 1955 and 1985 for it to be visually different. Whether that’s 100% true, we’ll give him some points for a creative excuse.
Obviousness: 6/10 By the end of the second movie, you might feel like you’ve been hit over the head by the branding, but that could also just be the script and not a deliberate attempt to punish viewers with an ad message. After all, in spite of the deal with Pepsi, Marty McFly does attempt to order a Tab, which is a Coca-Cola brand.
The Wizard (1989)
Eschewing Mac and Me’s misguided effort to graft a plot onto a long-form commercial, this Fred Savage vehicle is a blatant ad not just for the then-hot Nintendo Entertainment System, but for its Power Glove peripheral and the game Super Mario 3. It’s basically Rain Man, if you replace gambling with gaming and make everyone a tween, and all the characters constantly talk about Nintendo products.
Relevance: 10/10 Don’t take this high score as an indicator of quality. Rather, it’s intended to show that this movie is a 100-minute Nintendo ad, and thus the use of Nintendo products is totally relevant.
Uniqueness: 10/10 Again, since the entire point of the film revolves around the Nintendo brand, it would be incongruous to have the characters continually playing a Sega console.
Obviousness: 10/10 The poster for the movie features not just the actors from the film, but the Power Glove and an illustration of Mario.
BRANDS IN ACTION
Independence Day (1996)
The movie that cemented Will Smith’s status as a summer superstar also tried to convince us that a single Apple laptop operated by Jeff Goldblum could be used to halt an alien attack on Earth. Apple even tried to cash in on its appearance in the movie with ads saying “When you’ve got just 28 minutes to save the entire planet, you better hope you got the right computer.”
Relevance: 7/10 If you’re going to believe that someone can hack an alien spaceship, well then that person is going to need a computer to do said hacking.
Uniqueness: 1/10 When the movie and ad campaign were released, many computer experts claimed that the last computer you’d want to use for high-powered hacking was a Mac. This computer could have been any other brand willing to pony up for placement.
Obviousness: 4/10 Unlike his PayPal ads, Jeff Goldblum doesn’t go into rapturous detail about why the PowerBook kicks so much alien butt. However, the incredibly distinctive Apple logos are quite clear during the movie.
Demolition Man (1993)
In a dystopian future where Sylvester Stallone is a cop and Wesley Snipes likes to blow things up, the only restaurant left is Taco Bell. And while one might think this is a funny jab at fast food chains, it’s worth noting that PepsiCo (which owned the Taco Bell brand before spinning off the company that would become Yum! Brands) paid for Taco Bell’s inclusion in the movie, and had the filmmakers change the Taco Bell references to Pizza Hut for foreign-language translations, as the Hut was a much bigger overseas property at the time.
Relevance: 3/10 Taco Bell’s position as the only remaining restaurant is arguably amusing, but it’s not exactly essential to a story that’s more about cool ‘splosions than it is about social commentary.
Uniqueness: 6/10 The Taco Bell brand conjures up instant mental images for most American consumers, so changing the brand or going with a fictional restaurant chain would likely have elicited a different reaction from viewers.
Obviousness: 6/10 There is an entire scene dedicated to the discussion of Taco Bell and how it is the sole survivor of the Franchise Wars. To some viewers, that’s just characters having a silly conversation, to others it’s blatant advertising.
A movie based on an animated TV show that had been created for the sole purpose of selling toys. In the 23 years since that show first aired, those kid viewers had grown up and were buying much more expensive toys, which is why General Motors invested so heavily in having its vehicles featured in the Michael Bay blockbusters. The most notable change was in the character of Bumblebee, which had long been a robot disguised as a yellow VW Beetle. In the live-action films, Bumblebee is now a much sexier (and GM-made) Chevy Camaro, which means it can also feature in Chevy ads:
Relevance: 10/10 It’s a movie about robots disguised as automobiles, so the film will definitely need to feature some motorized vehicles.
Uniqueness: 1/10 Just because you need vehicles doesn’t mean they need to come from GM. Bay could have used any car company, or just gone without brands, especially since he didn’t feel tied to the makes and models from the original TV show.
Obviousness: 5/10 This score probably depends on who you ask and how much they remember and love the old cartoons, or on their affinities for various car makers. Plenty of people watched the movie without any regard to what brand of cars they were looking at, while others were likely distracted for most of the movie, especially when unmarked (but obvious) Ford vehicles were used for some of the bad-guy Decepticons.
Casino Royale (2006)
Sony didn’t just distribute this reboot of the James Bond franchise, it also made sure that a lot of its tech products were clearly on display in the film. Bond’s on the computer? It’s a Sony Vaio. He’s texting or calling his duplicitous lady friend? It’s a Sony Ericsson phone (There are at least 6 separate close-ups where that brand is clearly seen). Taking photos on the canals in Venice? Time to use his Sony camera. Security camera footage? Why that’s stored on a Sony Blu-Ray disc.
Relevance: 9/10 He’s James Bond. He’s going to have high-tech stuff.
Uniqueness: 3/10 While one could maybe argue that the phones featured in the movie were state of the art at the time, it seems like this more about showing off an array of new Sony Ericsson products than anything else. Any number of other phone brands would have done.
Obviousness: 6/10 It may not slap most viewers in the face on first watching, but once you see all the Sony logos on every piece of electronics in the film, it’s hard to un-see.
Up In the Air (2009)
George Clooney stars as a traveling hatchet-man who racks up a mountain of airline miles during his travels. Of course, he does it all on American Airlines, which gets lots of on-screen time in this Oscar-nominated flick. Several big-name hotels also get love from the characters in the movie.
Relevance: 10/10 You can’t have a movie about a guy who has earned millions of airline miles and not mention the airline.
Uniqueness: 1/10 But there is no need for that airline to be real. In fact, the Walter Kirn book on which the movie is based uses the fictional Great West airline.
Obviousness: 7/10 While it’s clear from the start that the Clooney character is an American Airlines man, the movie doesn’t go too far out of its way to extol any particular virtues of the carrier. So the brand is very present during the movie, but not always screaming for attention.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)
Tom Hanks is a beloved Hollywood star and he’s also got a long history of being in movies that have no problem mentioning brand names. He’s voiced all three Toy Story movies, which feature Barbie, Mr. Potato Head, and others. Cast Away has been accused of being a big ad for FedEx and Wilson. Forrest Gump loves his Dr. Pepper. And The Terminal highlights countless brand names in the airport Hanks’ character calls home.
But the Hanks movie that draws the most ire from those who despise product placement is You’ve Got Mail, which takes its name from the obnoxious e-mail alert on AOL (which is of course, how the two semi-anonymous lovebirds communicate in this movie). But it gets even worse, as the movie takes every opportunity to shill for Starbucks. Oddly enough, the one chain whose name would make sense in the movie — Barnes & Noble — is instead disguised as the fictional Fox Books chain of mega-bookstores.
Relevance: 7/10 Since the movie is supposed to be the story of two people who fall in love over Instant Message and e-mail, then AOL is as good as any other service.
Uniqueness: 6/10 If this movie were made today, the Uniqueness score would be significantly lower than this, but in the mid-’90s, your average consumer didn’t have many options for IM and e-mail, so AOL would have been the likely way for these two to communicate.
Obviousness: 10/10 From the title of the movie to the continual display of AOL screens, it’s hard not to feel that this story has been bought and paid for, especially when the filmmakers go to such lengths to not use the Barnes & Noble name.
Little Nicky (2000)
Adam Sandler might be the undisputed king of product placement. Sure, he poked fun at celebrity endorsement with his Subway ads in Happy Gilmore (though you also know Subway paid for the placement). But what about the McDonald’s mentions in Big Daddy? Or the constant Budweiser-drinking and logos in That’s My Boy? Even his semi-serious flick Funny People takes a lengthy detour to a MySpace corporate party where Sandler watches singer James Taylor yell “F*ck Facebook!” at employees who don’t realize they are working on borrowed time.
But if you had to pick one Sandler movie to nitpick about product placement, it’s probably Little Nicky, wherein he plays an oddball son of Satan who not only learns to love Popeyes Chicken, but has a conversation with a talking dog about how to eat Popeyes Chicken and how “f*cking awesome” Popeyes Chicken is, to which the demon dog replies, “Popeyes Chicken is the shiznit!”
Relevance: 0/10 The whole Popeyes thing is completely shoehorned into the plot, perhaps because the company paid for the placement or maybe because Sandler really loves it. Regardless, it’s a standout strange moment in a movie full of out-of-nowhere scenes.
Uniqueness: N/A We tried to come up with a way to evaluate the Popeyes shilling in this category but to no avail.
Obviousness: 8/10: In almost any other movie, this would score a 10/10 for being so obvious, but Little Nicky is such a strange film that such an obvious plug for Popeyes almost feels like it might belong.