If you’re ever in need of a hero, you could do a lot worse than Jack Bauer. Jack has busy days. When he’s not averting the many surfeits of disaster compressed into 24-hours (sure it’s contrived, but it’s entertaining), Jack apparently goes shopping.
How else could you explain his clear brand preference for Apple Mac? Not a few plot cliffhangers have hinged upon Jack’s penchant for Mac-branded products. And is it by chance that those intrusive FBI agents always use Dell machines?
In truth, strategic product placement saturates the film industry. Essentially, it’s the insertion of brands into contexts that aren’t otherwise geared toward brand promotion (such as movies). According to Brandchannel, an online exchange that tracks new directions in brand development, Apple topped the list of product placements in 2010, making an appearance in roughly one-third of the year’s top films. It beat out contenders Nike, Chevrolet and Ford (24%), and Sony, Dell, Land Rover and Glock (each of which appeared in 15% of top films). Looking back more broadly, BrandChannel notes that Apple-branded products have appeared in over one-third of all the top-grossing films at the US box office between 2001 and 2010, more than McDonalds and Nike combined.
In the 1996 apocalyptic Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum’s character uses a prototype Apple Powerbook to upload a virus into an alien spacecraft that saves the planet. When the movie came to theatres, Apple released a concurrent ad campaign tagged with the slogan, “What kind of laptop would you choose to save the world?” Apple maintains that it never pays for these placements, though the company has something of a reputation for keeping mum about its internal business practices and developments.
For aggressive marketeers, product placement in films can create deceptively powerful brand connections for a public audience. Part of this power lies in the dynamics of the cinematic experience itself. Think about how captive you are inside the cinema. The lights go off, the screen flickers. Everyone is involved in the event as the onscreen narrative unfolds. And while an audience might only obliquely register Goldblum’s Powerbook as it boots up and saves the world, it makes for some fairly potent associations linking branded technology with ideas about collective survival and national patriotism.
I’m reminded of how Carrie Bradshaw closes so many episodes of Sex and the City typing reflectively on her Powerbook, and how that speaks so poignantly to a generation of modern career women looking for a reliable techno-friend to journey with them along the road of life and love in the city. A fairly aggressive product placement drive by Hewlett-Packard clearly meant enough to the financiers of the series’ second film franchise to have Carrie dump her Mac for an HP machine.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the most advantageous move for HP. Not only did the film perform poorly, it managed to score three Razzie Awards for “worst prequel, remake rip-off or sequel”, worst actress and worst ensemble. For user Andy S, commenting at The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW), Apple’s exclusion was especially fortunate: “Thank God. Every character on that show is so shallow and worthless, a craptastic HP laptop running Windows is a perfect match. Now they can both die in the same fire.”
It’s a crucial reminder for companies to consider their brand placements carefully. Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle said that Mercedes refused to allow its vehicles to be placed in the film’s many non-flattering settings, meaning that the post-production team had to digitally remove all the Mercedes logos from the movie at considerable financial cost. Interestingly, Mercedes had no such reservations about gangsters and hoodlums using their cars. Their take-home message seemed to be, “It’s okay for murderers to drive our cars, as long as they’re not poor.”
Mercedes may have cornered Boyle into digitally removing their logos from his film, but technology is increasingly moving toward active digital placement in any case. SeamBi , for instance, an acronym for Syndicator expanding dynamic brand-insertion, allows advertisers to digitally insert their logos at strategic points in a particular TV-series after production has been completed. These insertions can be customised according to specific local and regional markets, meaning that many different versions of the same episode can exist simultaneously.
Essentially, they become discrete brand adaptations of a single broadcast tailored to consumer trends and buyer demographics. A Toohey’s may be the beer of choice for the residents of New South Wales, Australia, but Queenslanders prefer the XXXX and Powers brands. Naturally, advertisers will want to buy branded spaces that give their clients the most effective exposure.
Medical genius Dr House, sympathetic serial killer Dexter Morgan, modern-American tough guy Jack Bauer, these are just a few examples of the ubiquity of Apple branding in films and on TV. Brandchannel’s latest report notes that while the magnitude of Apple’s on-screen dominance may have slipped of late, it’s a firm indication that many other brands are now aping Apple’s product placement strategy. Sony Pictures in particular has wasted no time in securing the visibility of its own proprietary brands in the films it produces, so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that a film like Casino Royale bordered on a paid-for Sony product plug thinly disguised as the new-generation James Bond installment.
I think it’s fair to say that producers and directors need to walk the tightrope of art and commerce with a fair degree of circumspection. It’s all well and good for ardent aesthetes to champion the cause of an unfettered art with no recourse to sponsorship deals and product endorsements, but films are not free-to-make ventures albeit that, if successful, they can certainly be moneymaking ones.
“We needed help,” said director Oliver Stone about the film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. “We took it where we could without, I think, prostituting the movie.” I’m sympathetic to Stone. Whether or not he succeeded in maintaining his integrity as a filmmaker is debatable, especially seeing as Brandchannel handed Wall Street the Worst Product Placement award for 2010, citing “grotesquely obvious” instances of brand promotion. But Stone’s point is well taken: real-world budget constraints can mean some sober choices when sourcing the finances to fund a production. It may not save the world, but it can definitely save the movie.