The evolution of product placements in the past 20 years
Our method is based on presenting the selected examples and explaining them in detail; in addition, to underline some of the possible implications suggested by them. We also need to emphasize that the scenes in question are represented by stills taken out of them, so we can only indicate what the depicted scene contains, and cannot include the whole in here.
Before we head in, it must be said that we personally believe that some movies (usually the mainstream ones, intended for a larger audience, rather than low-budget, let alone art house ones) are likely to lose some of their credibility because of the distraction caused in the scenes by the product. Most movies use these kinds of advertisements because it is a way to pay for the production of the movie. Because of this, many times we cannot blame the decision of the filmmakers for allowing product placements. The only problem is that they show a tendency to actually move from the background into the foreground and to stay there as well, and our examples will show just that. The first example is from a very recent movie.
The movie World War Z is about zombie attacks. We can see that throughout the years zombie movies had a pale mixture of colors, among them blue, green and mostly brown. The movie ranges from desaturated colors to sometimes strong vivid colors during the shot made outside. These vivid colors, however, have almost a blinding effect on the viewer.
The product in question is that of a Pepsi can. As you can see clearly from the image (sorry, the image had to be changed here for technical reasons), we have a wide angle shot with strong green colors and the product is in emphasis. The colors of the can – blue silver stripes - are so strongly in contrast with the background, as well as the person holding it that it is impossible to miss. The actor enjoys the can with his eyes closed, portraying infinite pleasure in every drop he drinks.
In the movie, the character stops in the middle of the zombie invasion to drink a Pepsi. The whole scene alone can be analyzed as a stand-alone advertisement. The actor poses and holds the can so the brand can be seen clearly. These kinds of photographs appear as stills from actual commercials. As no advertisement was released by Pepsi starring Brad Pitt, we can only assume that perhaps there was an intent behind it.
Either way we look at it, it is strange that in an action movie where people run for their lives, the main hero might have a minute to spare to enjoy a Pepsi. The whole scene entails that of the character finding a working vending machine in a building where electricity barely works as we have several neon lights flickering in the background – hence the bluish hues on the overall green screen.
This would be a good example on how the background is completely taken for granted: The green walls could’ve easily had an old advertisement on them instead of a standalone scene. The product is brought forward to make sure the viewer doesn’t miss out. It has to be said that the more they show of one product, the more the company will pay, but that is no reason to bother the viewer during the screening of the movie. These companies have to be smarter about the way they deliver their placements.
We will now look at the fight at the end of Superman II . Superman is actually widely known for a wide range of product placements, but I find that one of the most disturbing ones is that of the Marlboro truck where Superman crash lands during the fight.
When the movie was made in 1980, cigarette advertisements weren’t banned yet, and yet that is not the reason its position in the movie is bothersome. Of course the idea of Superman being an advocate of smoking nowadays is completely abhorring. Since banning adverts for cigarettes: if a tobacco product of any kind appears on the big screen, the movie company is forced to add a disclaimer at the end of the credits to prove that they do not condone the use of such materials. This might also be another reason why I find this picture mesmerizing. Not only is it a great example of product placement, but also a relic from the past.
Back in the movie the whole scene was shot at night, with Superman fighting an old nemesis from his home planet. Being dark, the blatantly obvious colors such as white and red – that of Marlboro’s brand – not only are eye catching, but take focus away from the scene.
As clearly seen in the picture, over 80% of the screen is composed of the truck with the brand on it. Scientifically speaking, the product placement was quite clever. In a Cambridge study it was proved that people don’t read letter by letter but by words. This ability is called typoglycemia. This means that even if some letters are missing, e.g. "Malboro"; or the letters will be mixed up in any way, e.g. "Mobrlaro" or "Mablroro", but the first and last letter are the same, then the mind is capable of reading it. This device comes in when we speak of typography.
And concerning typography, the viewer can immediately recognize the font type of the brand. In ads it is advised to use the same font every time. Getting back to the picture, as you can see, even though the truck was damaged and the Marlboro sign was torn, it is still very recognizable. We might even go as far as saying that by the support given thanks to the truck, Superman was able to get the upper hand on his enemy.
When talking about this particular scene from Forrest Gump , then we need to take into consideration the whole scene and not just the screen-capture seen above. In the story, Forrest has just returned home as a veteran of the Vietnam war and he is about to meet the President. Inside the oval office the veterans are offered refreshments and Forrest starts drinking full bottles of Dr. Pepper.
The scene begins with a close up on the table with several bottles all lined up perfectly to form a square – all full with beverage. As we see Forrest starts to drink them bottle by bottle. The screen-capture is important as well, as you can see he is purposefully positioned in the very same angle as Brad Pitt was in the previous image: From the side, clear shot of the beverage and also a big part of the label, just like in any drinking advertisement.
The next shot in the scene is that of a close up of the same table with all the empty bottles, some of the slightly displaced, but overall trying to resemble the same compact square form it had in the beginning of the scene. There is of course a small comedic element implied in Forrest pretending as if he hadn’t touched any of the bottles, let alone drink them all. The whole scene might distract us from the product when we look at it from a film analysis point of view: Film involves playing with time sequences. In the case of film analysis we don’t only consider what we see, but what we hear as well. In this scene music doesn’t appear, but you do hear Forrest gulping down bottle after bottle. However, we mustn’t overlook the three clear shots of the product in question. First, we have the several bottles on the table, displayed perfectly with the label facing the audience. Second, we have several shots of Forrest drinking the beverage. And lastly, the same shot of the table, with the consumed bottles, again, labels clearly displayed toward the audience. "Video-editing tools, therefore, allow the user to highlight the different semiotic choices visually and view the impact of such choices (...)." The order of the sequence is clearly tries to enhance the validity of the product. It might even imply that the taste is so great that Forrest couldn’t resist it, even if he wasn’t thirsty.
If we talk about sound, then we must mention that there is an ongoing murmur in the background, as all the veterans shake hands with the President. Forrest drinks the beverages quickly before his turn. And as a whole we just cannot ignore the background of the whole scene: The fact that Dr. Pepper is served in the oval office implies that it is so much more than just soda – it is a novelty drink consumed by the most powerful man in the world. Even if it sounds funny, we just cannot overlook these kinds of small details as they contribute to the further analysis in several ways.
And no matter how foolish it sounds when we take just 30 seconds of screen time, in the end we all know that this movie is a classic for so much more than just that scene, and yet the product is obvious; the placement is on purpose and the director even spent time on building up the scene that without that given product would simply not be the same!
The fourth example is a still from the 2001 film Legally Blonde featuring a remarkable instance of product placement by Apple. The scene represented by the chosen still is not unparalleled as there are many more framing the same situation that appears in the above picture: the protagonist finds herself in the centre of positive attention. (Representative pictures of those scenes are not included here, due to space constraints on visuals.)
One such scene lasting somewhat longer than two minutes, presents a clear-cut example of multimodality and sequence. According to the storyline, the protagonist, disappointed with herself both academically and personally, decides to improve her standing by bringing out the best of herself the first step of which is buying a new laptop. Here, the sequential organization of the scenes suggests that something spectacular is about to happen. This is further sustained by numerous scenes from the sequence showing her finding success in studying and her personal life as well. As an additional mode – starting exactly from the point she goes to purchase the Apple laptop in a rather revealing and attention-attracting costume – music comes in: it accompanies the scene sequence showing her gradually excelling in everything she determines to do. The track going under the scenes is entitled 'Watch me shine'; as suggested by its title, it is energetic and the lyrics emphasize and reinforce what is presented visually. In the meantime, the center and catalyser of the process of improvement is the computer. However, returning to the above still, the attraction of attention to the product is achieved by several components of organization, out of which the most discernable and thus, most relevant is the use of colors. In addition to the main character’s bold personal attire, there is one extremely apparent feature in the scene: the Apple laptop, which further enhances her outstanding looks. Arguably, it is easy to see the way executives behind this advertisement planned out how the product is going to be featured and what implications it might evoke:
In this long shot, the viewer can see five laptops, out of which four look the same and are placed peripherally compared to the one that is white and bright orange (with a clearly visible logo in the middle of it, whereas the others feature none) and is placed exactly in the middle of the composition. This technique of organization makes the product unmistakable. In the scene, there are additional cases of premeditated choice in terms of color use and style: those in the ‘the crowd’ appear in dull clothes mostly either dark or not bright in color. Also, what cannot be observed on the basis of the still image is that the mode of speech comes in: her utterances establish her as a bright and striving student.
All these compositional choices contribute to the construction of one main thought: that the product in question, similarly to its owner, is extraordinary and attractive, and that with the use of this computer one can become not only the envy of girls and the object of attraction of boys, but it also provides academic excellence.
The 2007 much-acclaimed comedy film, Juno, arguably, another type of product placement can be seen: that of the constructive kind (in addition to, of course, serving the evident purpose of popularizing and, eventually, increasing the sales of the product). The advertised beverage is the orange juice Sunny D, which the protagonist buys in the opening scene in order to be able to find out whether she is pregnant or not.
Because of the set of the angles, the viewer is immediately faced with the product, but this is also down to the distinctive bright colors. Not only is Sunny D quite easy to see (even its brand’s typography is visible), but is also adds up to the atmosphere of the scene: despite the character soon being about to discover her unplanned and unwanted pregnancy (which the viewer is most likely to be already informed about), the tone of the scene and the whole film is that of a cheerful, kind, easy-going one, and the design and colors of the bottle contribute to this impression. The colors all project a kind, rather child-like than serious feeling.
This opening scene showing the main character walking whilst drinking steadily lasts for about two and a half minutes and is featured by music of a relaxed, cheerful kind. In addition to the product staying central throughout the scene, the next utterance takes this further by directly denoting it: "Silencio, old man! Look, I just drank my weight in Sunny D and I gotta go pronto!" This way, it is completely impossible to miss the product.
The reason for stating that this is more a constructive kind of product placement is that it does not devaluate the scene, it does not take away the viewer’s attention from the film and directs it to the drink, simply because it is part of it; it has a specific aim in it. The way so much emphasis is placed on the beverage itself could be criticized, but this scene is of importance regarding the plot of the film: it is the starting point and helps create the main situation from which the story will evolve.
Of course, the name of the brand is not necessary to be explicitly stated, still, this is the choice of the director, and as a film of fairly low budget (an independent film), its choices can be regarded serving artistic rather than marketing purposes. Looking at the speech utterances of the main character, the viewer is faced with a witty teenager who displays very realistically how a teenager speaks, and mentioning the name of the drink she is having appears natural and not forced under these circumstances.
Our next feature is that of FedEx from the film Cast Away, what has become renowned as one giant piece of advertisement for the brand. Because of the plotline (the protagonist being an employee of the company, and working when he suffers an accident), it is destined to have some part in it. However, this performance of various FedEx boxes, that in the beginning of the film seems to be a mere cameo, becomes permanent and of crucial importance: this is the reason one cannot choose just one scene to present the instance of product placement.
This chosen still, nevertheless, shows the cast away trying to find the means of survival. As the film progresses, FedEx boxes will pop up now and then to contribute to the escape from the island; moreover, with the help of its’ contents is it possible for the protagonist to keep his mental sanity.
It could be said that in this case the product transgresses the boundaries of a simple product placement and becomes a symbol in itself: that of survival. It might seem that there is no special case of multimodality here, and really, most of the time the director lets the brand speaking for itself simply by placing it into every possible scene, be it directly or indirectly presented. However, the fact that the company’s name is many times heard, moreover, on one occasion there is even a verb form created from it ("I FedEx’d it before I left Memphis…"), reinforcing how mighty it is. In the same scene, it is described that the protagonist (an influential executive of the company) is unsatisfied with the delivery results, and points out, in a rather outraged way, that it is essential that the employees work incredibly hard as it is incompatible with the renown of the company that the delivery is not fast enough. There could hardly be a better advertisement for FedEx, than this very statement.
It seems to be a valid recognition that Cast Away does not overuse the possibilities of multimodality, but it effectively makes up for this with the overt and dominant use of just a few modes: its main strengths are visuals (simple repetitions of various appearances of the logo), and language, but most importantly, the metaphoric power created throughout the film.
Our penultimate example is a self-explanatory and self-confessed quasi advertisement from the film Lost in Translation, with the promotion of Suntory Whiskey. Similarly to a previous precedent (Juno), the product here is vital part of the scene it appears in –accordingly, the whole scene revolves around it, practically. Obviously, it only provides a means of unfolding a comical/tragic, maybe absurd situation that is descriptive of the alienated and disoriented feelings of the male protagonist.
On top of the single scene of the shooting of the advertisement for the beverage, it can be noted, that it is the reason for the actor to go to Japan, as he goes especially for the shooting. The primary importance of the product and how it oversteps the constraints and usual borders of a typical product placement could be likened to our previous illustration of Cast Away. It seems somewhat pointless to direct attention to the mode of speech, because – as previously said – in the advertisement, especially with the countless repetitions of the takes, the name of the brand and the product itself emerges on numerous occasions.
A few words could be said about the different visuals, like colors, appearing. The main colors utilized seem to accord with that of the product – as it can be expected in case of a real-life commercial as well: the dominant ones are black (the actors’ clothes) and mellow gold, mirroring the looks of the drink.
As a last example we wanted to mention a product placement that had a huge impact on our society. As you can see Tom Cruise is wearing sunglasses in the screen-capture above. Now, this kind of everyday gadget can hardly be thought of as product placement. And sometimes it doesn’t mean to be. This is what we are trying to emphasize when we say that the background is changing position: When the product is hidden in an everyday garment or object, then it will still cause an impact without becoming irritating.
And the product in question did cause a huge impact! In the movie Risky Business Tom Cruise wore a set of Ray-Ban sunglasses that became one of the most recognizable and iconic gadgets of all time and have even returned to fashion after several years of disappearance. The Ray-Ban sunglasses could be looked upon as the representation of the kind of product that still uses the idea of subliminal message.
Subliminal messages can be divided into two groups. "A series of advertisements that flash so fast that your only your sub-conscious mind can pick it up. This method was used a lot in the 1950's and 60's to get people to smoke. If it is used enough your actions can be effected by these messages. It has been banned by the US government." Even Coca-Cola was known for the spread of subliminal messages. The other kind refers to products such as sunglasses. Or imagine a scene where the main character opens every cupboard in the kitchen looking for something and you can see in the background a pack of four cans of 7UP; now imagine a family having breakfast and seeing a box of Kellogg’s Frosties on the table – you wouldn’t think that it was trying to appeal to you or force itself onto the audience, but you would crave for a bowl of cereal and a glass of 7UP.
Perhaps this kind of product placement was more spread in the 90’s, and even so, it still begs the question of why this changed throughout the years. It could simply be that the big multinational companies have now perfected a way to exploit this market. Or simply that with such an economic decline films – both big blockbusters as well as independent productions – have to make up for such a loss in financing that product placement is the best way to go. In the case of World War Z for example it is known that the footage acquired in the first half of shooting was completely useless, and therefore the re-shooting had to be paid for in advance. It is really this harsh side of financing that can take away our interest in a film.
In this essay, we tried to come up with examples that symbolize both sides of the coin: We have product placements that know that they are meant to be advertisements (and sometimes purposeful elements of the film) and try to make the best of it without abusing their power. On the other hand, we have those kinds of product placements that really don’t do anything but bother the viewer. If the audience cannot be in sync with what they are viewing, then they are not going to enjoy it.
Although we discussed movies, we couldn’t present full scenes here, so we denoted those with stills from them – an it cannot go unmentioned that we took out just bits from these movies and analyzed them based on our best knowledge of advertisements. We purposefully chose pictures from films that are good examples of the phenomenon, and which indicate what is going on in the scene. Of course, it is the whole scene that highlights the product, with the different additional modes (soundtrack, speech) that cannot be shown here, in the still pictures. This is why we offered a description of some of the scenes: the exclusion of these would have been inappropriate and inaccurate, because that way, we could not have shown the multimodality in these instances.Even though we put an emphasis on the fact that they might be distracting, we really just wished to point out how, in 2D, the products are climbing closer and closer to the viewer. Not only by becoming bigger or by having more screen time, but by having inserted almost 30 second long commercials in each of the films. And when we can analyze more than just a picture, then we should look at whole scene as they feature speech, sometimes music as well, not to mention colors and the cropping of each shot and it is here that multimodality comes in.
All of the above examples were especially important because one could observe how using each of these semiotic elements the product is put forward, how it is highlighted – it is not just a random object in the background – but an unmistakable and sometimes necessary element of the foreground that the viewer just can’t miss.
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- Judith Grey (2013). The 15 Most Shameless Movie Product Placements Of All Time, - http://www.businessinsider.com/15-worst-movie-product-placements-2013-5
- Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged - © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003 - http://www.collinsdictionary.com
- World War Z (2013) – Owned by Paramount Pictures ©; Directed by Marc Foster; Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan based on the novel by Max Brooks.
- Superman II (1981) – Owned by Warner Bros. ©; Directed by Richard Lester, Written by Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Tom Mankiewicz
- Forrest Gump (1994) Owned by Paramount Pictures ©; Directed by Robert Zemeckis; Written by Eric Roth based on the novel by Winston Groom.
- Legally Blonde (2001) – Owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer ©; Directed by Robert Luketic; Written by Karen McCullah based on a novel by Amanda Brown. Song sang by Joanna Pacitti – Realeased in 2001; Owned by A&M label.
- Juno (2007) – Owned by Fox Searchlight Pictures ©; Directed by Jason Reitman; Written by Diablo Cody.
- Cast Away (2000) – Owned by Twentieth Century Fox ©; Directed by Robert Zemeckis; Written by William Broyles Jr.
- Lost In Translation (2003) – Owned by Focus Features ©; Directed and written by Sofia Coppola
- Risky Business (1983) – Owned by Geffen Company ©; Directed and Written by Paul Brickman.