It is becoming increasingly clear that we are what we wear, carry, breathe, advertise, post, boast and declare in the willing public ear.
I embraced this lusty ethos some time ago when I was editor and publisher of Bicycling Magazine. When appearing on the Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning, I must have looked like an advertiser’s wet dream with my Trek carbon fiber bicycle, Bell helmet, Specialized cleats, Louis Garneau jersey, Cannondale shades and just a hint of rain gear from Gore-Tex. I had a handler who made sure my minor case of color blindness did not cause any fashion missteps under the harsh light of morning television. With delicacy and British understatement, I dropped these labels into the 8 am segment of the American imagination without losing a step. In the vernacular, I was right on the money. Subliminal, more or less, sells.
Those heady days seem such a long time ago. I was playing in a sandbox with few tools and restricted movement. These days the entire shoreline is fair game. The traditional separation between Church (editorial) and State (business) seems to be breaking down and media companies are aggressively pursuing initiatives such as content marketing, brand journalism, and native advertising. I just read that the New York Stock Exchange launched a project called The Big Stage, developed by Digitas, intended to highlight corporations in a photo-rich setting. For example, “Animal Pharm” recounts the efforts of drug company Zoetis to fight animal diseases. The actual content was produced by Time Inc. Content Solutions, which is outside the Time and Fortune Magazine operations. Content Solutions are paid by companies to produce brand journalism.
To their credit, media companies are working hard to define these new content categories and make sure they are labeled clearly so consumers won’t be confused. Forbes and The Atlantic deserve particular credit for this effort. And given the pressing need for increased digital advertising revenues, there is no reason to think the push into brand journalism or content marketing will slow anytime soon.
But if you want to experience the crème-de-la-crème of product placement, go to the movies. I saw Iron Man 3 over the weekend and, due to exposure to what seemed like hundreds of products, some of which barely related to the narrative line, I will have to see the movie again to get a fuller sense of the rise, fall and rise again of these Marvel comic book archetypes. Or maybe not.
I recall attending movies as a kid in North London and looking forward to the newsreels, the obligatory pre-roll where we learned of the British Empire’s grace and foresight in giving up large swaths of the African continent. At my multiplex, the obligatory pre-roll of coming attractions lasted almost thirty minutes, during which we were mainly bombarded with large images of a 67-ounce Coke bottle and that new, partially crushed, bowtie-shaped Budweiser beer can designed primarily for party animals with thin waists. The bombardment was so focused, intense and relentless that I had to excuse myself and buy an $8 tub of buttered popcorn.
By the time Iron Man 3 showed its face, we were sufficiently schooled in the art of product placement that classical concerns such as the narrative thread and the all-important denouement seemed like yesterday’s news. That our heroes drive an Audi R8 and S7 should come as no surprise. Or that they wear Matsuda Eyewear and Aviator glasses and Fred Perry shirts; stay in touch through TCL mobile phones; drink Budweiser; read Forbes magazine; and exploit the technology in a limited edition Dora the Explorer watch. It is not as if the director decided first on the products to be placed; then built the story around these branded items.
The poet T.S. Eliot reminded us a hundred years ago about the importance of a willing suspension of disbelief. He was talking about readers immersing themselves in literature, though he might as well have been talking about product placement. With Eliot in mind, we will accept in Iron Man 3 the branded gardening tools, Bloom’s Special Fertilizer, and the Green Light Fire Ant Control. We will stay with the poetic logic and assume these products will contribute to the pyrotechnics and the overall quality of the film. We will accept the presence of the IRB 120, an ABB Industrial Robot. After all, there’s a lot of heavy stuff to move around in this film, and one more robot will hardly be noticed.
But we will have to stand tall with those online voices, some mocking in the extreme, who find the placement of the Oracle Exadata Server, including a close-up of the actual server model number, to be decidedly over-the-top. After all, this product is used for data warehousing and online transaction processing. It’s not likely to be found in a panel truck in Anywhere, Tennessee. As products go, this baby is no lightweight placement.
At this point, I can express gratitude that we were not watching this film in China, where they added four minutes to the ending so the producer could drop in a plug for Duo Li Duo, a Chinese milk product from a dairy in Inner Mongolia that apparently gave the Iron Man his power. Even the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party paper, called the Chinese version pointless. Perhaps this is also because no one, not even the Communist Party, could believe that our Iron Man hero would go to China for a life-saving medical procedure.
Now that is over the top!
But I am worried when the one voice of sanity in this product placement circus is the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
Perhaps we should feel blessed that a purported movie sex tape of Gwyneth Paltrow/Pepper that was to be broadcast in a fictional Home Depot, in proper product placement mode, courtesy of the villain, with presumably all the appropriate handy tool references, was left on the cutting room floor. This fan-fiction is courtesy of Complex Media.
Thank goodness the director had the foresight to forego the sex and keep us numbingly amused with wall-to-wall product placements. At the very least, the movie theater is still safe for our children.