Product placement in the movies is nothing new. Although the number and value of placements has increased since the early Hollywood years and although many recent movies such as I, Robot and the Transformers Movie may be perceived to employ product placements more extensively and brazenly than movies from previous decades, the practice itself predates the rise of the Hollywood movie industry and is likely to be as old as cinema itself. In this article we explore some early examples of product placement in the movies.

Early cinema (ca. 1896-1900’s) focussed primarily on satisfying the curiosity and amazement of the audience at the spectacle of moving pictures. Often coming at the end of a Music Hall billing, the audience’s enjoyment of ‘cinematic attractions’ was likely absorbed at least as much in the novelty of the film-going experience as it was in the subject of the film itself. It was several years before more narrative forms of cinema became dominant. Early forms of cinema were particularly ideally suited to product placement and, indeed, it is often argued that early cinema shares more in common with TV advertisements than it does with more modern films.

Advertisers were quick to realise the potential of cinema as a media for promoting brands. In the early years product placement could afford to be brazen. Brands could be promoted openly and the filmmaker could be confident that their work would find an audience that would be keen to watch it. Even if it was, essentially, an advert. An interesting early example of this is a 1897 film featuring Admiral Cigarettes. Four men (one of them, bizarrely, wearing a traditional American-Indian headdress) are seated next to a large packet of Admiral Cigarettes. They chat casually. A woman in a navy uniform (though, strangely, minus the trousers) suddenly bursts from the box and, somewhat clumsily, showers the stage with cigarettes. The men unfurl a banner saying ‘WE ALL SMOKE’ and point to the giant Admiral Cigarettes billboard that forms the backdrop.

A good early example of product placement within a narrative context can be seen in the Edison Manufacturing Co produced movie Streetcar Chivalry of 1903. A young woman enters a crowded streetcar and a group of men shuffle up to enable her to sit down. An older, less attractive woman then enters the streetcar and the men ignore her by, humorously, pretending to read newspapers. The woman struggles to stay on her feet as the streetcar moves about and on several occasions falls on top of the men. Eventually two of the men leave and she too gets to sit down. All the while the audience are able to see the various overhead advertising placards for Edison Manufacturing Co products such as the ‘Kinetoscope’.

Notable Hollywood silent era films to feature product placement include Fatty Arbuckle’s 1919 film The Garage in which Red Crown Gasoline appears. The first film to win the academy award for best picture, Wings (1927), contains plugs for a few products including chocolate. In this film a dashing young airman is shown coolly munching a chocolate bar. The audience does not have to wait long to discover which particular brand our rugged hero prefers. After one bite he tosses the bar down onto a pair of socks. Helpfully, we are treated to a close up of the chocolate on said pair of socks and we learn that this particular airman opts for Hershey’s when he wants something sweet.

The Marx Brothers comedy Horse Feathers (1932) contains a scene where the product being placed is the subject of the joke. A woman falls from a canoe and asks for a life saver. Groucho Marx tosses her a Life Savers sweet (for the benefit of non-US readers, Life Savers are ring shaped mints somewhat similar to Polo mints). Less obvious, but not necessarily less conspicuous, methods of product placement were necessary for later genres. The classic noir film Gun Crazy (1950) features a thrilling robbery at the payroll department of a meat processing plant. It could be argued that the Armour logo is somewhat unnecessarily prominent throughout this sequence. We also wonder whether it always has to be a Bulova clock that Bart and Laurie glance up to.

As long as there has been cinema there has been a medium for product placement. The challenge for the advertiser and the filmmaker is to present the brand to the audience in a way that does not detract from the narrative quality of the film. If product placement is overdone then there is the risk of a negative reaction from the audience. Perhaps the best advert for any brand would be for it to be placed in a high quality film. It seems likely that the best quality films, if they feature product placement, will carry it off with taste and discretion. Almost certainly, an audience rapt in a great movie like Gun Crazy will not take offence at the presence of Armour and Bulova logos during key scenes. What is difficult to measure is the extent of the increased awareness for the brands in question in the minds of the audience. Certainly it seems likely that association with a movie like Gun Crazy can only be a good thing.

By yanam49

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