Tasha: I largely enjoyed David Fincher’s Gone Girl, but one thing about it kept making me laugh: The sheer amount of prominent product placement. Nick (Ben Affleck) wakes up one morning with his sister pressing a cold can of Diet Coke to his forehead. Later, he expresses his frustration with his life by eating Dreyers’ ice cream out of the carton. A woman in a run-down cabin in the woods enjoys a huge glass of Mountain Dew—with the bottle prominently placed in front of her, sitting right next to the glass. Another woman goes on a junk-food binge, and is seen lounging on an inflatable floating pool chair, stuffing Fritos into her mouth (bag turned pointedly toward the camera), and sitting by the pool eating KitKats from a large package of them, one bar at a time. As the products piled up—look, someone’s shopping at Big Lots! Let’s make sure the camera can see the logo on the high-paid lawyer’s luxury SUV!—it turned into a find-the-product game for me. But it also took me out of the film somewhat. Frankly put, I find open product placement in films distracting and annoying, because it’s hard for me to escape the reality that someone paid for those items to be right there, in the middle of the screen, with actors emphasizing how much they’re enjoying them. But when I mentioned this to my partner after the movie, he said, “What product placement? I didn’t notice any.”
Genevieve: I didn’t really notice it myself, or rather, I didn’t notice it to the extent that it bothered me. Does knowing that characters reference Coke or Diet Coke by name several times in Gillian Flynn’s novel make those instances in the film bother you less? Or that the book name-drops Starbucks and Target at other points? I suspect not, for the simple reason that that sort of detail in print comes across not as product placement, but simply as a matter of setting, which I think is how it’s meant to be viewed in the film as well. Gone Girl is set in the modern day, a time when brands and logos of all stripes are essentially inescapable: Just looking around our office, I see logos for Coke, Pepsi, Gatorade, the U.S. Postal Service, and Scotch-brand tape. (As a side note, I’d like to thank The Dissolve’s newest sponsors, Coke, Pepsi, the U.S. Postal Service, and Scotch-brand tape.) And sure, that woman’s Mountain Dew logo is pointed directly at the camera, but it’s not like I make an effort to hide the logos of whatever name-brand junk food I happen to be consuming at the moment. (Now excuse me while I take a sip of this ice-cold Coke sitting next to me.) Brands and logos are a matter of our daily life, for better or worse, and in general, it doesn’t bother me if a filmmaker like Fincher wants to utilize that fabric in his film.
Product placement can be distracting when it’s overused, or used inelegantly, like, say, Man Of Steel’s notorious Main Street fight that just happened to destroy a Sears, a 7-Eleven, and an IHOP while leaving their looming signs completely visible and intact. But a character drinking a Diet Coke, or a high-priced lawyer driving a status-symbol car? Those are just visual artifacts of How We Live Now. As long as it doesn’t damage the integrity of the story being told—which I don’t think Gone Girl’s product placement does at all—I’m not going to get fussed about real-world brands showing up in films set in the real world.
Tasha: The use of real brands in Flynn’s book is an interesting point, but as you imply, it’s a different matter: I’m betting Flynn wasn’t paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw Starbucks into her story. (If I’m wrong, and we’ve entered an exciting, ambitious new era of product placement, color me abashed—and let me know when I can expect that first residuals check for using tape and drinking soda in the office. Wait, I just shut myself out of the deal by using generic nouns, didn’t I?) For me, one of the reasons real brands in films are distracting is because I hear cash-register ka-chings every time I see Brad Pitt cracking open and downing a Pepsi in World War Z, or Gargamel taking time out from Smurf-hunting to compliment the screen clarity and ease of use of the latest tablet from Smurf parent company Sony, or Michael Caine deciding that KFC needed to be an integral part of his family-saving road trip in Around The Bend. At the point where a casual viewer can see the ad dollars on the screen—where a Coke can in a room isn’t a casual piece of real-world set-dressing on a counter, but the unacknowledged centerpiece of the set design, because that’s what the people paying the money want—that’s where I find it distracting, because it stops feeling real-worldy and starts feeling ad-worldy. I don’t flinch when you use a tablet in real life, but I would if you paused to say, “Hey, Tasha, look how smoothly this new Sony tablet integrates real-time video playback!”
I recognize that the real world is full of brands, and masking them out of existence for movies can become its own form of comically prominent distraction, as with the generic FOOD cans and other products in Repo Man, or Quentin Tarantino’s long-defunct, much-used cereal (Fruit Brute) and made-up cigarettes (Red Apple). That said, while you don’t go out of your way to hide your Coke-can logo from me, you also don’t sip pointedly from it with the logo facing me while we talk, with your hand cupping it from beneath so you don’t obscure anything from my apparently easily influenced eyes. That’s often what makes the distinction for me between natural product placement and too-much product placement. I’d lay out the hierarchy of sins like this, from least gross to most gross:
6) Brand Item is sitting visibly somewhere in a scene.
5) Character casually uses Brand Item, or patronizes Brand Service.
4) A scene is set in Brand Place (at a Hertz car rental, in a McDonalds), and lingers there long enough to make the corporate logo noticeable.
3) Character pointedly or prolongedly uses Brand Item.
2) Character openly calls attention to Brand Place.
1) Character actually takes time out of the story to praise the quality of Brand.
That last one is pretty rare, but it’s happened, and when it does, people make fun of it. And I think there’s more than a taste of it in Gone Girl. A character binging on Fritos and Pepsi doesn’t come across as praise, especially when she visibly puts on weight very rapidly as a result. But the point where Neil Patrick Harris’ character Desi brags that his luxury lake house features Netflix and Roku just sticks in my craw. It feels like a film taking a break for an ad. Where do you draw the line yourself?
Genevieve: I'll actually defend that Netflix/Roku detail in Gone Girl as well, though to do so will require me to get into spoiler-y territory, so anyone who hasn’t seen the film is invited to jump down to the next paragraph now. First of all, I wouldn’t call Desi mentioning his Netflix and Roku bragging, since it’s not like those are exceptionally luxe items in the current technological climate; if he were bragging, he’d at least have had to shell out for an Apple TV or something that retails for more than an extremely reasonable $49.99. (The Dissolve, brought to you by: Roku!) But more to the point, Desi is pointing this out not to impress Amy, but to show all the comforts he can provide her, so she never has to leave the house, and more importantly, never watch the news. Given Desi’s eventual fate, which is a direct result of Amy seeing Nick on the television, that moment reads less like a “Look at my shit!” boast and more of a not-so-subtle push for Amy to settle in, zone out, binge-watch Orange Is The New Black, and for God’s sake don’t think about anything that doesn’t involve Desi’s awesome house or his awesome self. It’s an important detail, and the fact that it involves brand names is matter of specificity, not commercialism—and tell me it wouldn’t have been much more distracting with tacked-on generic names: “Amy, please settle in and watch some FilmPix on my Streambox!”
My point is, I didn’t find that mention jarring because I felt it was justified by the story. Just as the aforementioned brand-name junk-food binge worked for me in the context of that point in the story, where that character is taking a “fuck it all” approach to her previously carefully monitored self- and body-image. Which is all a way of saying that it’s difficult for me to draw a line—or create a hierarchy—when it comes to product placement, because that line is subjective: Product placement becomes obtrusive the moment you can no longer believe it as an organic part of the movie, and that moment is going to vary from person to person. We can usually unite around hilariously egregious stuff like Al “Dunk” Pacino shilling for Dunkin’ Donuts in Jack And Jill, because even with that plot’s loose justification of that bit, it’s so obviously a commercial in the middle of a movie—I mean, that’s literally what it is. But a character turning a label toward the camera or making an offhand reference to a brand-name product that character would conceivably use/own/consume—that’s usually not going to register to me, particularly if I’m invested in and enjoying the film, and not looking for little reasons to be annoyed by it. Your mileage obviously varies in that regard, so let me ask you: How much does product placement actually affect your opinion of a movie? Is it simply a distraction that you wish weren’t there, or do you actually think less of a film for including brand-name products?
Tasha: It really depends on how pandering the movie is otherwise, I think. Smurfs 2 is such an obsequious, excitable, carpet-piddling dog of a movie that the blatant excess of its product placement can hardly make it worse—but it does seal the deal on the impression that no one involved gave a poreless blue CGI crap about what they were making, except as a vehicle for grabbing money via any possible angle. The Transformers movies are so loud, shrill, and sloppy that their big branding deals with various car companies don’t even register on my tackiness scale. (Given a choice of which problem to focus on, execrable gender relationships, plots that can’t keep track of a goal for five minutes, or car branding, I’ll go with the things closer to my core interests.) Whereas with something like Gone Girl, which is so obviously more of a prestige movie, with a more low-key affect and serious tone—yes, I do think less of it because of the integrated ads. Gone Girl is openly mocking consumerism and money-worship, with its plot focus on credit-card debt, a shed full of expensive electronics, and a storyline set off in part by the money woes of people who thought they’d always be rich. But it can’t have it both ways: It’s difficult for a film to get away with pilloring people for being selfish, shallow brand-monkeys while raking in the money for integrating so many brands itself.
One issue in all of this is that funding movies keeps getting harder, and I recognize the desire to underwrite a production with a fat whack of advertising cash. And again, I don’t much care if it’s relatively subliminal, or if it’s one or two brands rather than a dozen. (One of the problems with Man Of Steel is that the marketers got greedy and overfilled the screen with prominently placed brands until it was impossible to miss.) But there are still other options: Star Trek: Into Darkness reportedly nabbed $100 million in commercial tie-in deals without putting brands onscreen, except Budweiser. (Bud, by the way, is a ubiquitous onscreen brand, comparable to Apple, with placement in a quarter of last year’s No. 1 box-office hits.) And as with any sponsored content or native advertising, there’s always a question of how long and how well this kind of product placement is going to work, as viewers get cannier about noticing it, and as it becomes both more blatant and ubiquitous, which it is all the time. But given that you didn’t really notice it here, I’m curious: Do you think you’re noticing product placement less as it becomes less remarkable? Maybe I’m wrong, and more of the same will make people less resistant, rather than more.
Genevieve: First of all, I want to push back against your characterization of all brand integration and product placement as filmmakers wanting “a fat whack of advertising cash.” While that can certainly be the case, as with that egregious Smurfs 2 example you cite, I think it’s a bit hyperbolic and reactionary to assume every single instance of a real-life brand in a movie represents a lucrative deal intended to fatten the pockets of all involved; in some cases, like Gone Girl’s highlighting of Steven Soderbergh’s South American brandy Singani 63—a bit of product placement I can’t believe you missed!—it can be nothing more sinister than a filmmaker doing a favor for a friend. More often, though, it’s a more simple matter of a mutually beneficial partnership. To cite another one of your examples, Apple famously does not pay for its products to be featured in movies and television, but rather gives its products for free to filmmakers who want to feature them in their projects, and provides clearance for their use with little hassle. Sure, there’s definitely an advertorial bent to that practice, but my point is that not every appearance of a brand onscreen constitutes product placement, so much as product clearance. I strongly suspect that the mention of Netflix and Roku in Gone Girl was a matter of Fincher clearing the mention of those brands with the companies—who were probably happy to do so—and not one of the companies paying Fincher to feature those brands. Given the amount of money and energy that can go into getting clearances for brands in a film—or, alternately, acquiring fictional stand-in props—it behooves filmmakers to use brands that offer clearances willingly and easily. Conversely, it behooves brands to let creators use their products without a hassle. And frankly, I don’t have much of a problem with that.
Nor do I have much of a problem riding a city bus plastered in ads, or walking down a street lined with billboards, or flipping past the advertisements in my magazines. Product placement ceased to be remarkable in real life a long time ago, and seeing it in movies—again, when it makes sense for the story—just feels like an extension of everyday life to me. Is there still an idealistic part of me that wishes I could walk down the street without being visually screamed at to buy All The Things, or watch a movie without being forced to marvel at the beauty of a pair of Converse All-Stars? Of course; I only have so much mental real-estate to devote to things I might like to purchase one day. But ultimately, I’m a pragmatist who realizes the necessary compromises involved when art and commerce co-mingle, and I like to think I’ve trained my brain to skim over most product placement in film the same way it skims over product placement in—and I can’t stress this enough—basically every single aspect of modern daily life. It’s less a matter of not noticing it and more one of actively ignoring it, and if that forces advertisers to get more creative about finding less obtrusive ways to integrate their products… Well, good. It’ll make it even easier to ignore.