Product placement in movies: buy a hot dog

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th January 2011.

Remember that scene in Casino Royale, the 2006 James Bond reboot, where 007 and Vesper Lynd are travelling on a train and she asks him about his watch? She asks, “Rolex?” Bond (Daniel Craig) calmly replies, “Omega.” Lynd ends the conversation about the watch with the simple, “Beautiful.”

Ker-ching! You’ve just been the victim of product placement. Omega reportedly paid $7 million per film for Bond to spruik Omega watches. Sure, the world’s favourite superspy has to wear a watch so it may as well be an actual brand but there’s really no need to shove it down our throats by altering the script to become a bizarre commercial. Last time I checked, the ads were meant to be before the film, not during the feature.

Product placement in films is nothing new but imagine what might happen if a company actually bankrolls a feature film. There are two famous examples of this. One is a beloved family film and the other is one of the worst movies ever made (it has a 0% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was originally published in 1964. A children’s literary classic, it was adapted into a movie musical starring Gene Wilder in 1971. What you may not know is that the film was financed by the Quaker Oats Company.

Founded in 1901, the company specialised in breakfast cereals at the time and had no experience in film making. The film’s producer, David L. Wolper, managed to convince the company that the movie would be the perfect advertising medium for their new candy bars. And thus, the Wonka Bar was born and the film’s title was altered to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in anticipation of a marketing match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, due to production problems, Wonka Bars never made it to the shops and the film was released, unblemished by product placement, to generally positive reviews (Dahl hated it) but mediocre box office. Via endless television repeats and its popularity on video and DVD, it is now considered an iconic children’s film (despite the scene showing a chook being decapitated).

Quaker Oats sold their share of the rights for half a million dollars 1977 and never invested in another film again.

Mac and Me was an E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial rip-off released in 1988. Featuring a cute alien (MAC stood for “Mysterious Alien Creature”) who befriends a boy in a wheelchair whilst on the run from evil government scientists and agents, this turkey was financially backed by Coke and McDonalds.

In one of the least subtle product placement ever, Mac (as in Big Mac) conveniently only needs Coke and Skittles to survive. A visit to a McDonalds Restaurant with the bad guys hot on the trail strangely deteriorates into a syrupy happy impromptu dance contest, complete with a cameo from Ronald McDonald. This sickly sweet scene is widely available on YouTube and has to be seen to be believed. A warning, you may need insulin afterwards.

Ronald McDonald deservedly won the Worst New Star category at the 1988 Golden Raspberry Awards for Mac and Me. The film ends with the words, “We’ll Be Back!” written across the screen. Luckily for us, this atrocious waste of celluloid didn’t spawn a sequel. I understand that business for McDonalds was unaffected by the film’s failure and that there are now several restaurants worldwide.

So the next time you buy a watch, or grab a drink, or participate in an impromptu dance off at your local burger joint, or visit a chocolate factory run by little men with green hair, ask yourself if Hollywood made you do it.

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