Death of the Critic

Product Placement: Realism vs. Marketing

Written by: Tom Blaich


It is a familiar experience for anyone who has watched a movie or binged a TV show: the main character will be talking, walking down a busy street and in the background, we will see storefronts plastered with ads for the same few companies, Coke or Taco Bell or some other massive corporation. Often, these ads don’t even stick out, fading to the background much like they do in our everyday life (which might itself serve as some accidental commentary about the massive marketing pushes we are subjected to).

Sometimes the ads are unintentional, a byproduct of filming in a city environment that is already plastered with ads. Sometimes they are fake ads created for just this project, based off of non-existent products or companies and designed to flesh out the world in which the characters exist. And sometimes studios could have been paid very well to include scenes of their characters using these products or having these ads appear in the background.

Overt product placement has always looked strange. From the “Converse All-Star” and Audis of
I, Robot, the weaponized car porn of the Fast and Furious movies, to the Taco Bell ruled future of Demolition Man, these lingering shots and character dialogue does stick out like a sore thumb, because it does not feel natural. If I’m talking about a product (which I do rather often in my capacity as a reviewer/critic) you notice a difference in the way that I talk about a product and brands we do or don’t like. We don’t instantly mention names, or brag about prominent and marketable features of the device, because that just isn’t how people talk.

There is nothing wrong with creating a realistic world or realistic characters, and the fact of the matter is that our world is practically run by marking, and brands are synonymous with the things we use them for. People use products, they wear branded attire, they watch movies and television, so when we start trying to replace these recognizable names with others (that usually look and sound almost identical) we notice. In
It Follows, we wonder why someone is reading a book on a compact. Whenever we hear something that sounds like Google, but isn’t, it sounds off to us. It’s a testament to how effective the marketing efforts of these companies have been.

And it also says a lot about us as consumers that we are so keen to these small differences. In a world where realism is a factor, it is something that we have to consider. Properties that have traditionally done well in this area are ones that are not beholden to other companies. Marketing dollars from giant corporations like Coke can mean the difference between a movie being made and it not, but that is no excuse for all of these properties to engage in something like this.

Minority Report did an excellent job in their usage of ads, showing what the proliferation of marketing might look like in a future where everyone was being constantly watched. They created their own products and used this to further the story instead of trying to sell you tacos.

For me, this is when it works best, when there is no connection or mention or real products. If I want to search something, I look it up. I don’t "Google" it. A world on film where they let this fade into the background and ignore it, and mentioning it to advance the story feels the least scummy and intrusive. I don’t mind if someone drinks a Coke or drives a Corvette or goes to McDonalds. I mind if they try to influence me to do the same.



Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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