I really cannot wait for the new James Bond film Skyfall to be released next month. Not just because I'm a huge Bond fan — and always have been since the days of sex-god Sean Connery and his dress-unzipping magnetic watch; but for another, very 21st-century reason.
According to rumours, gossip and leaks from the closely guarded movie set, this film will break all records for the amount of product placement that has been allowed to infiltrate so many scene and influence the complex storyline. Indeed, a report on website TheFilmStage.com claims that a staggering $45m — approximately one-third of the entire production budget— has been raised by product sponsorship deals.
So why am I so glad of this news, you may wonder? Well that is because my sons and I have a game we play while watching big blockbuster movies. It's called “Spot The Gratuitous Placement” and it turns even the most predictable and dull trip to the cinema into a fun afternoon of cynical mirth.
Now over recent years there have been some humdingers. In many movie sets, the fridge of your typical seedy American apartment seems to be the favourite place to start. In fact I can't tell you how many times I've watched — and cringed — while some deadbeat, down-on-his-luck guy (possibly on the run from the cops, or just home from hospital visiting his dying wife, or being stalked by the Mob for an unpaid debt, etc, etc) opens the refrigerator door and, for those few blessed moments, his whole grotty world is temporarily bathed in that iridescent, golden glow of a full shelf of Budweiser. Or Coors. Or Miller Draught. (Bottles, of course; cans don't have the same feel-good effect).
Then, as the camera lingers on their gleaming, bubbling, enticing contents, several seconds of precious release is attained and all's right with the world.
And then, of course, there is the veritable Olympic Champion of Placements, McDonald’s. Picture the scene: some American bloke (or girl) is stuck for whatever reason in a strange, far-away country. The entire place is threatening, bizarre, scary, disturbing... well, foreign, basically. He looks around for something familiar and there, across the road, rising like a gateway to heaven are the “Golden Arches” of a McDonald’s restaurant. A little piece of down-home America in a horrible hostile territory. So, naturally, he smiles, walks through the door and for those few blessed moments, his whole grotty world is temporarily bathed in that iridescent, golden glow of row upon row of Big Macs.
It's been done so many times that the scene has become a cinematic cliche in its own right.
Just how far our hero goes with his burger depends, of course, on how far the movie is indebted to the brand. If we actually get to see the “money shot” of his sinking his teeth into those steaming hot beef patties dripping in mayo and melted cheese, then it's a fair bet that the studio ran out of money by scene two and the entire production team had to go cap in hand through the golden arches of McDonald’s Corp Inc and offer their wives as collateral.
Here are a few more specific examples.
You would imagine that product placement would be difficult in a movie where the entire civilised world has been virtually destroyed after an apocalyptic catastrophe wouldn’t you? But not so. It’s rife.
In the film The Road, for example (possibly THE most depressing movie ever made) Viggo Mortensen plays a man who, along with his son, is among a handful of survivors of a nuclear holocaust. In it I spotted one of the most blatant examples of corporate product placement I’ve ever seen.
It’s shot almost entirely in black/white and sepia tones to convey the utter devastation and destruction, but then a solitary can of Coca-Cola is unearthed from the rubble, shining like a beacon of brilliance in its familiar and welcoming swirls of red and silver... and for that one precious moment, they are both happy again. Aye, right. Everybody’s dead but this is still the real thing.
In I Am Legend, Will Smith is the survivor of a pandemic plague which has wiped out most of humankind and turned the rest into flesh-eating zombie vampires (don’t you just hate it when that happens?) Nevertheless, despite this very grim prognosis, he is deliriously happy to find a pair of Converse All-Star “sneakers” untouched and immaculate in their original box and which just happen to fit like a glove. As he fastens up the intricate hi-top lacing he comments with great satisfaction “what a thing of beauty!” like some cinematic sartorial version of a “Condor moment”.
I wonder how much Converse paid for that privilege?
Meanwhile it's not just the moviemakers who are at it. Musicians — specifically hip-hop artists and rappers — have been doing it for years, slipping product placement into their lyrics in the hope of reaping financial rewards once the song becomes a hit. For example, who can forget the famous chant by the Sugar Hill Gang: “Hotel? Motel? Holiday Inn!!” or more recently, the hit by Busta Rhymes entitled Pass The Courvoisier?
But now mainstream artists are getting in on the act. In an attempt to counter the shortfall left by falling record sales, some famous pop acts are now seeking big-brand sponsors who will pay them a hefty wad for mentioning their product in a chart-topper.
The first singer to admit to this is Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas who apparently agreed a $2m deal to mention the American high-street clothing line Candie's in a recent album and to wear their gear in her videos.
Okay, so product placement is now a legitimate business strategy known as ‘multimarketing’. But as a slightly jaded viewer/consumer, if they asked me I'd call it multifaceted fan fleecing.