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A Place For Product Placement Discussion in Film Criticism

A Place For Product Placement Discussion in Film Criticism

Friday’s release of “The Internship” poses an increasingly common quandary for critics: faced with blatant and overwhelming product placement, is it the writer’s place to draw attention to the hamhandedness of the execution and/or the demerits of the company independent of the film? Sometimes critics can’t help but call product placement out, as with 1988’s much-derided “E.T.” rip-off “Mac and Me,” whose extended musical number taking place in McDonald’s and plugs for Sears and Coca-Cola (craved by aliens) earned it a representative description from Dave Kehr as “a 99-minute commercial occasionally interrupted by a not-so-good children’s movie.”

“The Internship” was made with Google’s full cooperation. The company didn’t pay to have its name mentioned in some form at least 45 times (according to this review from William Goss), but its cooperation yielded results Google’s happy with. Director Shawn Levy said he kept the colors of the first 15 minutes dull so that when the film finally got to the Google campus, it would look comparatively vibrant and inviting. There’s a speech by Rose Byrne’s character about how she actually believes that “what we do here helps make people’s lives a little bit better.” Among the earliest reviewers, Variety critic Scott Foundas finds the film’s “vision of Google as something like the world’s biggest mom-and-pop business” to be “disarming” (as opposed to oppressive, annoying or dishonest), while Hollywood Reporter reviewer Stephen Farber concludes that the company’s involvement “seems to have given an antiseptic sheen to much of the film.” 

Big and moderate-size businesses teaming up with movies are nothing new, though the scale of many recent examples is staggering. The forthcoming “Man of Steel” boasts 100+ promotional partners according to this Advertising Age report, making for a total of $160 million worth of cross-promotional investments. Some of those dollars are on-screen in the form of a Sears store, while ads on multiple platforms use the movie to advertise everything from National Guard recruitment to Hardee’s burgers.

Star Trek Into Darkness” acquired $100 million in promotional tie-ins without giving any products on-screen placement. In an interview with journalist Marc Graser, Paramount executive VP of worldwide marketing partnerships LeeAnne Stables was blunt about why it was easy to get money from companies that wouldn’t appear on-screen but who were still willing to pony up to shoot their ads on the Starship Enterprise set (as Esurance did) or acquire similar brand connotations from the franchise. “Audiences want to see good movies and the great commonality is people who will go see our movie are the people who are going to buy products,” she explained. “We’re talking to the same people.” Should audiences be made aware of how they’re being scanned as consumers even when they can’t see that on-screen?

There’s hardly a film currently in release that doesn’t have some kind of cross-promotional content. The ninth-highest-grossing film this weekend — “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani,” a Bollywood romantic comedy — has plugs for MakeMyTrip.com and promotional deals with Nokia and MasterCard, among others. At the top of the chart, Dodge hopes the success of “Fast & Furious 6” will help drive sales for the Dart, its underselling compact car. (Auto product placement works, most recently with the “Transformers” series given credit for boosting the profile of the Chevrolet Camaro.) In the middle there’s “The Great Gatsby,” which according to a Bloomberg Businessweek article, “presented a rare opportunity for luxury brands — the chance for a germane link to a potential summer blockbuster, a marketing forum typically cornered by fast-food franchises and toymakers.” These relevant facts are kept to the business pages and rarely mentioned in most reviews, an omission worth rectifying; heightened media awareness is never a bad thing.

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