Product placement is fine (in its place)

29 November, 2012

With great movie franchises come great advertising opportunities, and few are more lucrative than James Bond. Skyfall, being the most expensive Bond film to date, has had a heavy and controversial reliance on product placement that has seen historic advertising contracts (Heineken having paid a reported £28 million for the usurping of the iconic vodka martini).

This isn’t going to be another polemic about the inclusion of very ‘non Bond’ brands in this film - the internet has been awash with them since the film’s release - and it would be naïve to think that a movie with such a tumultuous production history and sky-high budget would have been possible without such deals. I will make this observation about product placement in films, though: it has the unfortunate effect of alienating only the people who care most about films. Product placement ‘done right’ is the ideal marketing tool for most brands, making a subliminal connection in all but a handful of viewers who, whilst not having noticed its presence during the film itself, can be targeted outside the cinema with cross-media advertising that will help cement the product in their minds. The problem is that these are the casual cinema-goers, the people that whisper “is that the guy from earlier? I thought he was dead” and seem to absorb only the most tacit elements of the plot required to string together some form of narrative in their heads.

But for the people that watch a lot of films, the people that spend a not inisgnificant portion of their income on DVDs and cinema tickets and Netflix subscriptions (ie, the consumers actually contributing to the ongoing existence of the industry), the syntax of the motion picture is well established. This means that when the close-up shot rests on Daniel Craig’s hand changing gear for just a fraction of a second too long so as to highlight his Omega wristwatch, it’s like having the demon head of the exorcist flash onto the screen.

Suddenly the whole fun of engrossing yourself in a film - spotting subtle gestures of the actors, predicting plot twists, admiring sets and costume - becomes a punishment. Like the boom mic dropping into shot or the extra looking into the camera for a split second, it jars the viewer back into the real world and reminds them that it’s just a film after all.

This may seem a minor gripe for a phenomenon that is, after all, facilitating the production of increasingly spectacular movies in an industry struggling to pull in revenue, and furthermore one that only blights the $100m+ budget films. Honestly, to say that the product placement in Skyfall was any more than a minor annoyance would be an exaggeration. But it is worthy of discussion as it raises the very real prospect that product placement could become a defacto source of funding for big budget films. In an age where movie studios know a picture will be watched illegally by an increasing number of people it seems the only sure-fire way to guarantee the books will be balanced. What’s more, it provides risk-free capital before the film is even made, making the film more financially attractive to all parties and helping attract further investment.

That’s really what this comes down to - catering to the people with the money. Film is the last virgin territory of the marketeer, every other form of media having become saturated, if not designed around, advertising. In an age where entertainment is considered a basic human right, it follows that studios would rather chase investment than revenue, given how reluctant consumers are to give up their hard earned cash in exchange for a few hours’ spectacle.

So let’s hope that for now product placement stays in the realm of the mega-budget summer blockbusters. Because the more money these movies make, the more likely it is that the quirky, independent film is to get produced the following year.