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.

Is it the real thing?

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th July 2010.

A major improvement has been made to the world’s biggest selling soft drink. That’s right, Coca-Cola have added grip to their 450ml PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. In what should receive the award for most dubious product improvement of the year, the manufacturers of Coke are labelling the new container “easy to hold”. That’s strange. I haven’t heard of anyone having problems holding a bottle of Coke. Do they realise that the container is made of plastic and won’t shatter when you drop it anyway? Perhaps they should be adding grip to their glass bottles? To be fair, Coke are claiming that the new bottle design uses 5% less PET than the previous one. OK, this may be an environmentally sound improvement I guess, but I don’t suppose that this new bottle will come with a small price reduction either. Despite its domination and success worldwide, the history of Coca-Cola is littered with several controversies and odd marketing decisions, much like the new grippy bottle. Created in 1886 by John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Columbus, Georgia, Coca-Cola had a rough start with a little legal turmoil after the creator sold his formula twice, the second sale to fund his morphine addiction. Initially containing cocaine (this was ceased in 1904), Coke is now manufactured with coca leaves from which cocaine has already been extracted (for medicinal purposes only of course). In 1985, New Coke was unleashed upon the US and Canada. With a new sweeter formula, it was developed to improve Coca-Cola’s market share in the US, where a fierce battle was being fought against Pepsi. Despite market research which showed that the majority of taste testers preferred the new formula, Coke did not anticipate the backlash it would receive, especially from the company’s home of Atlanta, Georgia, buoyed by nostalgia for what was considered an American icon. Less than twelve weeks later, in a complete back-flip, Coca-Cola Classic was back on the shelves, alongside New Coke, now known as Coca-Cola 2. By 2002, New Coke, as a separate product, was no more. Conspiracy theorists believe that the New Coke controversy was manufactured to allow Classic Coke to be brought back in the US with the cheaper (and much more fattening) high fructose corn syrup, rather than cane sugar, as its principal ingredient. Call in Fox Mulder. Not all of Coco-Cola’s ideas have involved Coke itself. Tab was a diet cola that was developed by Coca-Cola in 1963. The emergence of Diet Coke in 1982 saw Tab sales decline and it disappeared in Australia sometime in the late nineties. In 1993, Tab Clear was released in Australia. Clear cola, a fad around that time with several different brands, failed as a marketing gimmick and less than a year later had disappeared from shelves. Perhaps they forgot that the colour of the beverage itself was somewhat irrelevant considering Tab was mostly sold in cans. In 2008, Australian actress Kerry Armstrong was hired to front an advertising campaign “mythbusting” the notion that Coke was bad for you. I would suggest that an actress who makes a living saying someone else’s lines would not be the person Australians go to for nutritional advice. A year later, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) ruled that the ads were misleading. Despite these hiccups, Coca-Cola remains a dominant brand in the Australian beverage marketplace, expanding their portfolio to include beer, water, fruit juice, coffee and sports drinks. So if you go for “the real thing”, “just for the taste of it”, to “add life”, I also suggest you also “get a grip”.

Published in: on July 18, 2010 at 11:20  Leave a Comment  
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