Tuesday, September 28, 2010

When placing products is the point

Dealing with how to represent products in the movies and on TV is extremely problematic.

You're basically damned if you do and damned if you don't. We're all going to notice either way.

The movies that are going for maximum realism, as well as a corporate sponsorship buck or two, will leave all the normal products in. You'll see a can of Pepsi here, a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes there. And even though that represents our real world pretty accurately, it also calls attention to itself. And it blurs the line between art and commerce in a way that a lot of us are really uncomfortable with. If Pepsi's can of soda appears in the movie, who's to say that someone at Pepsi isn't whispering in the producers' ears, trying to control the content of the movie in which their product appears?

But consider the alternative -- blatantly fake brands that we know don't exist, and that are done shoddily. I can't remember what it was -- either a movie or one of the fall's new TV shows -- but I recently watched something in which a character was drinking what was obviously supposed to be a Corona, but instead the label read "Cerveza." Which just means "beer." This would actually have been okay -- it's sort of a clever way around the problem -- but the label itself looked like it had been scrawled by a third-grader. Much worse examples than this abound.

Either way, you notice the choice they've made. And it can be a distraction, however momentary.

So it's interesting when a movie comes along where placing products is precisely the point. Like The Joneses, which I saw this weekend.

For those of you who need a brief synopsis, The Joneses is a movie in which a beautiful family, comprised of David Duchovny, Demi Moore, Amber Heard and Benjamin Hollingsworth, moves into a beautiful home in a rich neighborhood, and immediately starts flashing their bling to the neighbors. That's what they've been hired to do -- they're all salespeople, unrelated to each other, whose task is to create brand awareness by having what everyone else wants and being what everyone else wants to be. It's a clever idea for a film, even if the execution is a bit off -- I thought it should have been more of the farce it is in the first half, and less of the drama it morphs into in the second.

But what was interesting to me was that the producers of The Joneses didn't commit to either real products or fake products. They used a little of both.

Under the real products banner, Duchovny's Steve Jones (not his real name) drives an Audi Q5 sports car and wears an Under Armour shirt golfing. However, when it comes to food products, apparently, no real sponsors wanted to jump on board. The appetizers the Joneses serve at a party are frozen pastries from an imaginary chef (probably modeled on Wolfgang Puck) and frozen sushi from an imaginary seafood company. Not to mention the wine coolers that come in juice bags, like the juice bags you give little kids -- these almost certainly do not exist.

Given that I wished the film had been a farce instead of a surprisingly dour cautionary tale about our societal consumer excesses, I wish they had had more alcoholic drinks in juice bags than Audi Q5s. Clearly, no sponsor would put their actual name on an alcoholic juice bag -- not only is it the equivalent of the tobacco industry's attempts to sell cigarettes to children, but one character gets into a serious car accident after drinking too many of them. But it's the right kind of idea for lampooning the ridiculous type things that are sold to us, so I'm okay with its blatant fakery.

I don't know what my real point is here, except that the movie made me think about product placement -- a thing I always notice in movies -- and finally gave me a real logical opportunity to write about it.

I guess the best thing to do, if you can block your action cleverly enough, is just try not to show cans of soda or boxes of cereal at all. Have the soda in a glass, have the cereal already poured into the bowl. In the bowl, even if you think you're seeing Lucky Charms, there isn't anything that actually says Lucky Charms, so you're okay.

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