Films aren’t just cultural vessels. They’re also commercial behemoths. Some franchises bring in literally billions of dollars per year.
For that reason, it’s hardly surprising that regular brands are looking to get in on the action. They want to showcase their products in films to cement their reputation as being the top dog in a particular industry.
Why do they want to be in films? Well, to put it bluntly, it works. Film production values are so high that some of their glitz rubs off on the products they present.
But are product placements in films a good thing, a bad thing, or just smart?
For companies, they’re certainly a smart move. Product placements help to build brand goodwill, increase brand awareness and directly boost sales. Because films tend to be such memorable experiences to consumers, just a single exposure to a particular brand can have a profound impact.
For culture, though, whether it is a good thing depends largely on your perspective. Some film buffs don’t see any problem using real-world brands in films designed to reflect the society in which we live. In fact, films like Star Trek are just plain weird for their outright refusal to depict any branding whatsoever.
For others, though, it’s a sign of a race to the bottom. Films, they argue, should be artistically pure. The images and props they use shouldn’t be determined by whichever company has the deepest pockets.
Different brand archetypes approach movie product placements in different ways. Apple, for instance, always inserts itself into movies to give the impression that it is creating something new. Pizza Hut, on the other hand, is all about having fun.
Product placements, therefore, aren’t necessarily good or bad. In some cases, directors can exploit what watchers already know about a brand to further the narrative arc. Brand associations can be a powerful tool to provide context without the need for additional scripting.
Brand placements in films aren’t always crude. In many settings, they don’t feel shoehorned. Both brands and directors understand that if they want to keep audiences onside, they have to integrate branding naturally. They can’t force it. Audiences don’t want to pay at the ticket office just to watch a glorified advertisement (even if that is what it ultimately is).
Throughout movie history, we’ve seen all sorts of successful product placements, reminding us just how effective it can be when done in the right way.
Top Gun – Ray-Ban Glasses
Ray-Ban glasses were originally a product designed to help pilots train in the run up to WW2. They featured special glass that made it easier to deal with the glare of the sun while flying.
In Top Gun, the directors paid homage to this heritage, including the company’s products in the film. Tom Cruise wearing them on Top Gun in the 1980s launched the brand to super stardom, and it is still living with the consequences of that venture to this day. It is hard to imagine Ray-Ban becoming so successful without that iconic film placement.
James Bond – Aston Martin
What does an arrogant, sexy, and slightly narcissistic British secret agent drive around in? An Aston Martin, of course – a brand that dominated the European luxury car market for much of the mid-twentieth century.
It’s now owned by somebody else, but that doesn’t detract from the genius of this product placement. Many people with the money to buy a luxury sports car (and even those without it) want to be like James Bond. And so Aston Martin was able to appeal directly to its clientele on a deeply psychological level.
What’s more, James Bond made cars cool by showing how they could be modded. Some of the changes were fanciful, but they introduced mainstream audiences to the concept that you could soup up an expensive vehicle and make it even more capable than it already was.
Wayne’s World – Pizza Hut
Pizza Hut managed to score a blatant product placement in Wayne’s World. But the comedy duo Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey somehow managed to make it work. It just made sense that they, of all people, would have a Pizza Hut obsession.
The Matrix – Nokia
The Matrix came out in 1999 and back then, there was only one phone company anyone cared about – Nokia. While Nokia isn’t at the forefront of our minds anymore, it was pretty much the only game in town twenty years ago.
Nokia got a product placement in the iconic sci-fi film as Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, entered the digital world of The Matrix. He’s pictured holding a Nokia 7110 – a popular phone at the time, going through a portal.
Following the massive commercial success of the film, sales of the 7110 skyrocketed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted one.
Transformers – Chevrolet
Chevrolet got lucky with the Transformers franchise. The entire story is predicated on the idea that giant robots can shapeshift into the form of cars and then back into robots again, so a product placement by them makes a lot of sense.
The car maker’s big break came in 2007 when its chief marketing exec, Tim Mahoney, joined forces with film director, Michael Bay. The duo decided to cast Bumblebee, one of the Autobots, as a Camaro in the new film that would relaunch the series. Following the release of the film, Chevy saw an increase in sales of the Camaro, despite the 2008 global financial crisis.
E.T. – Reeses Pieces
The placement of Reese’s Pieces in E.T. was one of the first product placements in film history. Reese’s Pieces wanted to use the film to promote their new peanut butter candy. Steven Spielberg decided to use the candy as a tool to lure the E.T. out of the woods.
As we all know, the film became a massive hit, with millions of people from all over the world going to see it at the cinema. We still don’t know how much money Hershey made from the film, but you can bet it was a lot. Plus, the ad worked – sales went up by nearly 100 percent.
Founder + Film Editor / Sharing her thoughts on all things film! When she's not writing about filmmaking for So Theory Goes, she is writing weekly posts for her new video editing platform, Working Womxn. workingwomxn.com