This week’s question comes from reader Matthew Ryan:
The release of Jurassic World already is earning its share of flak for, among other things, extensive product placement. This is interesting, to me, as I’d cite the first Jurassic Park film as an example of pitch-perfect product placement; I’ve never even considered buying anything but Barbasol when it comes to shaving cream. So my question is, what individual instances of product placement in movies and TV have you found most effective?
When I started drinking, Heineken was my beer of choice. I even went to the Heineken Experience for an interactive tour through beer’s history in its former brewery while in Amsterdam and came home with a green Heineken polo that sits in my closet unworn; I think it says something like “No. 1 Bartender” on the back. Now, I can’t remember the last time I had a Heineken or had to send back a Heineken Light because some bartender (obviously not the No. 1 bartender) assumed I couldn’t handle the “full-strength” of a pale lager that has an alcohol volume percentage of 5. Thinking back on this lifestyle choice, I can only attribute it to product placement, because the beer isn’t that great, obviously. Most often recognized in Bond films, Heineken seems ubiquitous on-screen. From more slick franchise films like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to romantic comedies like Something Borrowed, that iconic green bottle seems to pop up everywhere, which apparently influenced my younger subconscious for much longer than it should have.
My response is the opposite of Becca’s: I have long avoided Heineken based on the anti-recommendation of Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, who famously quipped, “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” And I did drink Pabst in my younger days—still do, when Hamm’s, my cheap swill of choice, isn’t available—but I was also going to a lot of rock shows at the time, so obviously there were other forces at work. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a private chuckle every time I cracked open one of those red, white, and blue cans. Also, imported beer inevitably gets stale by the time it makes its way across the ocean and to your local watering hole, so yeah, fuck that shit.
Keeping with our alcohol theme so far, I’m not much of a beer drinker, but wine is my go-to cocktail. I have failed any number of wine-tasting courses (Sommelier: “Now, is this more of a red fruit or a black fruit cabernet?” Me [hopefully]: “Black fruit?” Sommelier [wincing]: “Red fruit. Obviously.”), but after many efforts, have eventually discovered my perfect white-wine varietal and region: sauvignon blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand. Red wine is still a mixed bag for me, so when in doubt I head for pinot noir, thanks not to Kimmy Schmidt, but Alexander Payne’s 2004 film Sideways. As a wine-snob wannabe, I so enjoyed the winery tours and explorations featured in this movie as two friends go on a pre-wedding vineyard tour. When actual wine snob Miles (Paul Giamatti) describes the pinot-noir grape to Maya (Virginia Madsen), he’s basically describing himself: thin-skinned, temperamental, and can only thrive under very specific conditions. And when he goes off on pinot’s flavors as the “most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and ancient on the planet,” it makes me want to run out immediately and buy a bottle I can’t afford. I’m not the only viewer who pulled wine tastes from this movie: Merlot sales dove after Miles ranted: “I am not drinking any fucking merlot!”
Growing up, my siblings had an embarrassing penchant for capitalist gullibility, be it in commercial form or otherwise. Like, to the point where my mother tells me that when they walked down the aisles at the grocery store, my brother would yank the side of her dress when she would put detergent in the cart, saying, “But, Mom, this brand of detergent gets your clothes their whitest!” So I grew up doing my best to inoculate myself against such brainwashing. And throughout my teens and early 20s, that mentality worked pretty well—right up until Vitaminwater launched the Kelly Clarkson flavor of its beverage. I was somewhat obsessed with the pop singer for a few years, having watched the first season of American Idol religiously, and being a moderate fan of her subsequent music. So when she endorsed the kiwi-strawberry flavor (now simply and sadly known only as “focus”), I found myself buying it purely out of my affinity for her. It worked like an angel-voiced charm, because to this day, I still buy that same flavor, only now I no longer find myself having to ask bodega owners, “Do you have Kelly Clarkson flavor?”
As one of those rare, noble souls who thinks Back To The Future Part II is the best film in the series—the scene where Doc Brown explains the notion of alternate timelines to Marty McFly, for example, ignited both my love of “what if?” stories and also chalkboard-based exposition—I think that movie’s extensive product placement got its hooks into my young self but good. It wasn’t Mattel’s clearly fake hoverboard that obsessed me—even as a 5-year-old, I could smell something fishy there—but Pizza Hut and its amazing dehydrated pizzas. They just looked so cool, the perfect blend of realistic and futuristic, popping out of the Black & Decker food hydrator—which I’m now realizing was also product placement, albeit one that I totally missed as a kid. (The movie really is a perfect storm of brands trying to show off how hip and futuristic they could be in 1989.) Even now, watching the clip, the sight of the rehydrated pizza gets my stomach rumbling, filling me with a Pavlovian urge to toss on my Solar Shades, head to my nearest Hut, and dig into a slice.
Somewhere in my Amazon Wishlist sits the Spiderlegs folding café table, first seen being unfolded in a motel room by Val Kilmer in Francis Ford Coppola’s bizarre Twixt. I’m a sucker for the neat and portable, but also a terrible tightwad, in part because I spent the early years of independent adulthood—let’s say ages 17 through 23—basically penniless. (Somewhere in there are seven cumulative months without electricity, and more without gas or hot water.) As a result, it’s hard for me to bring myself to buy an inessential, even if it’s a four-legged table that folds up into the size a modest suitcase. Coppola frames it as the writer’s fetish item that it is, all hinges, surfaces, and moving parts; it’s hard for anyone who’s ever tried to work in a hotel room not to immediately want one, even if only to bring out to the back yard every now and then. Someday. Someday. (On the other hand, I do own a red Olivetti Valentine typewriter, first seen being furiously typed on by Emmanuelle Béart in the opening shot of André Téchiné’s The Witnesses and then obsessed over for years, though that was a present from my less tightwad-ish spouse.)
I’m incredibly susceptible to the temptations and trickeries of capitalism, and it’s because of people like me that product placement exists. Let me put it this way: When Patricia Clarkson said she was wearing Cherries In The Snow, a shade of Revlon lipstick, in her 7 Minutes In Heaven interview, I went to CVS the next day to buy Cherries In The Snow. I don’t even like Corona or Dos Equis, but I’ll drink the former because of the Fast & Furious franchise and the latter because of The L Word. But perhaps the most ridiculous time I ever succumbed to the pressures of product placement happened in college, when I used the search engine Bing instead of the more widely accepted Google for a full two years. Yep, for two years, my friends gasped in horror when they saw Bing as my homepage and default search bar. And it can all be attributed to The CW’s full-network efforts to push the Microsoft-owned search engine. Around 2010, characters on Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries started using the phrase “Bing it” as if it were a perfectly normal thing to say in everyday conversation, and the camera began to linger a little too long on characters’ Bing searches. Not sure how to kill a vampire? Bing it. Trying to track down Mia Kirshner’s whereabouts? Bing it. Wondering how Blair Waldorf can be such a perfect human being? Well, that’s probably one thing Bing can’t answer. For the record, I eventually came to my senses and switched back to Google. Sorry, Bing. Not even I can remain that committed to pretending my life is a CW show.
John Noble’s terrific performance as addled-but-brilliant scientist Dr. Walter Bishop helped elevate J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi drama Fringe above the X-Files knockoff it could have easily been. While many of Walter’s odd obsessions were out of reach—fictional ’60s psychedelic group Violet Sedan Chair, or Abrams’ ever-present Slusho—one that only seemed like it came from a wild alternate reality were Red Vines. Somehow my candy-obsessed self had never encountered Twizzlers’ West Coast doppelgänger, and while tough, plastic-y Twizzlers always seem to approximate the idea of red licorice while never fulfilling the promise, Red Vines are the real deal—softer, sweeter, more natural-tasting (despite being the same subtle blend of high fructose corn syrup and industrial runoff as everything else in the candy aisle), and capable of bringing comfort even in a universe that’s coming apart at the seams.
There have been product-placement jokes that double as actual product placement for decades now, but for some reason I always found 30 Rock’s Snapple plugs, which were unambiguously paid for, particularly endearing. I don’t know that they made me more likely to drink Snapple, necessarily, but loving 30 Rock and tolerating Snapple together did make me think: “Okay, it’s pretty cool that this sugary beverage company is giving money to a great and often anemically rated show, and it’s pretty cool that the show is so open about it.” In terms of me actually wanting to buy something, though, it tends to works best in reverse: Lord help me, but I have seriously considered buying various Etsy versions of the Team Zissou Adidas from The Life Aquatic. If Adidas made them for real, I’d be all over that like I was all over the Star Wars droid-themed Adidas, which are the best sneakers I’ve ever owned, at least from a fashion standpoint. Note: I was not paid by Adidas for the preceding endorsements.
If you do not want to eat Reese’s Pieces while watching E.T., you are clearly a monster. It’s the perfect bonding point between E.T. and Elliott. Of course they will be buds—they both love the bite-size combo of chocolate and peanut butter. Our first glimpse of the friendly alien is his long spindly fingers grabbing for the candies. It’s like Jaws, but instead of seeing the fin, or hearing John Williams’ score, you see those spindly fingers. As a kid, there’s a fear associated with those digits: They don’t look like mine so they could be attached to something terrifying. But they’re not, because those fingers just want to grab Reese’s Pieces and chow down. Then again, I could also eat my weight in Reese’s Pieces with no prompting and be a very happy (and fat) human. So maybe this product placement is just a bullshit excuse for me to eat candy.
In my younger days, I was a complete mark for anything a cool, young movie hero seemed conspicuously attached to. I went to college proudly wearing John Cusack’s brown leather jacket from The Sure Thing (or as close as I could get from Burlington Coat Factory), and, once there, I was delighted that the college bookstore stocked Black Jack gum, the favorite sweet of Christian Slater’s pirate DJ from Allan Moyle’s 1990 teen rebellion film Pump Up The Volume. From his basement radio studio/secret truth-telling lair, Slater’s Mark made rude noises, played Beastie Boys songs “so controversial, they couldn’t put it on their first album,” and pontificated profanely on all the soulless, adult hypocrisy surrounding him, all the while dodging the authorities and dropping nuggets of Slater-cool wisdom (“All the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks”). It was irresistible bait to teenage guys everywhere, especially those desperate to seem deep, and since not all of us had the knowledge or wherewithal to start our own pirate radio stations (the internet would have made it all so much easier), I snapped up Slater’s Black Jack as a signifier of my own, just-waiting-to-be-discovered, inner-cool rebel. The affectation lasted about as long as I could pretend that whatever cachet that foul, tarry mess was conferring on me was worth having black-stained teeth.
Although they might’ve ended up getting more promo out of their collaboration with NBC’s Chuck, I think my favorite product placement from Subway came in 1993’s Coneheads, the film belatedly built out of the Saturday Night Live sketch from the ’70s. It’s not necessarily a great film—although it’s one that I invariably find myself sucked into watching whenever I happen upon it—but even as unabashed as it was, I still laughed as Ronnie (Chris Farley) was enthralled by watching Connie Conehead devour a Subway sub. I can’t say that I wasn’t already eating at Subway by the time the movie came out, but I do think I tended to eat there more afterwards.