Content businesses now accept all kinds of deals they wouldn’t have before. Novelists make
deals for product placement within their hallowed pages. Rock stars routinely license songs for
commercials and create tunes commissioned by brands. And while product placement has been
a fact of life in Hollywood since the era of silent films, it’s now a major revenue generator for
movies such as Iron Man 2, the Sony Pictures movie that ranked No. 1 last year in product placement, according to Brandchannel, with 64 identifiable brands in its two hours and four minutes
“People call us up all the time about putting our brands in movies,” says Linda Resnick,
founder and CEO of Pom Wonderful. Spurlock’s movie, she adds with a laugh, “isn’t about the
brands. It’s about making fun of the marketing people. Now, that was not in Morgan’s pitch. He
couldn’t very well say, ‘Please be in my movie so I can make you look like an ass.’ But it’s that way
for art, not out of anything malicious. Morgan’s adorable. His movie is adorable—and hysterical.”
Resnick may be the most colorful character in the documentary. Heavily made-up, with big
hair and the personality to match, she is clearly, as she puts it, “the mother of this brand.” And
unlike other brand reps in the film (notably those at Ban Deodorant, who seem clueless), she
doesn’t come off as an ass. “Morgan could sell ice movies to the Eskimos,” she says. “We’re talking a salesman here. I didn’t realize when he came to us that every other door on Madison Avenue
had been shut in his little pink face. We liked the idea, so it was worth taking a chance.
“Look,” she continues, “ours are iconic brands—we don’t have to pay for product placement.
ACTORS IN ADS?
But I think people know, don’t they, that a lot of this stuff is planted?”
They do indeed, says Martin Lindstrom, a neuromarketer (and FASTCOMPANY.com blogger)
whom Spurlock interviews in the movie. “Ninety-five percent of all product placement is a waste
of money. Number one, it’s conscious, and number two, it’s out of context.” He contrasts Ford’s
dumping its cars into an episode of American Idol with Apple’s sophisticated product placements
in the Pixar film WALL-E. “So,” says Lindstrom, “suddenly seeing a car on stage while people
are singing, your brain says, ‘This is ridiculous; this has nothing to do with the story line. For
me to concentrate on the story line, I need to delete that brand, whatever it is.’ So we are not
being brainwashed, since the products are not being used in the right way.”
That’s the good news about our brains. The bad news? “Companies are slowly getting more
sophisticated,” says Lindstrom. “They’re beginning to use unconscious clues to make people feel
as if they want something. And they’re starting to be able to measure it.”
Lindstrom explains, “I have a strange role, and it’s somewhat similar to Morgan’s, because
I’m sitting on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, I’m helping companies to optimize their
brand impressions, and on the other hand, I’m a consumer too, and I hate to be manipulated.
I’ve put in a certain set of rules for my work. One is that I always tell companies, ‘If this is
advertising that you would not show to your own kids, then we’ve gone too far.’ It’s an incred-
ibly powerful benchmark.”
American movie stars will
exploit their celebrity via run-of-the-mill advertising—provided
the ads appear in overseas
markets. Hollywood believes that
doing ads in the U.S. will tarnish
a star’s brand. Except if the star
is an actress hawking beauty
products. Or an actor wearing
a fine watch. Then it’s okay.
TV’S LEADING SELLOUTS
In 2010, American Idol and
The Jay Leno Show featured more
product placements than any
other program, according to the
Nielsen Co. The practice is one
television has always held dear:
The very first big television hit
was the Texaco Star Theater,
starring comedian Milton Berle.
THE GREATEST ENDING EVER!
Does a sports anchor’s shoe really affect your view of her work? Does the presence of a particular soft drink really diminish your enjoyment of The Office Does the fact that the
Transformers movies are based on a toy sold by Hasbro really bother you? Were you expecting a movie
called Transformers to have the same editorial integrity as The New York Times For that matter,
does the fact that the Times has run ads on its front page alter your feelings about the quality
and veracity of the paper’s reporting? Do the ads alongside this article make you question the
authenticity of the reporting in FAST COMPAN Y?
For most of us, the answer to these questions is, probably, no. So why is it that we at FAST COMPAN Y do not plan to ever again muddy the lines between our editorial and advertising sides the
way we have here? The answer is simple: To survive in this increasingly melded world of branding
and content, we all draw lines to protect our integrity. The lines may shift; they may get challenged
by neuromarketing, technology, greed, and even vapidity, like Gnomeo & Juliet and American Idol.
But we all need our lines. And to intelligently create those lines, we need to be aware.
“I’m not somebody who’s going to stand on a soapbox and say we should eliminate advertis-
ing,” says Spurlock, “because that would be ludicrous. I’m a realist, I live in the real world, I run
a business, and I’m a capitalist. But I’m a real believer that doing good and doing well aren’t
mutually exclusive. There’s a way to continually make people think, to look at our society and
what is good and bad and great about it, and get us to examine that.”
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
THE COVER PRICE
Ari Karpel is THE GREATEST WRITER EVER.
Tom Bernard, head of Sony
Pictures Classics, which is
distributing Spurlock’s movie
(and bought the ad at right),
says that the promotion value
of getting Spurlock on the cover
of FAST COMPAN Y would have
been about $250,000. Here’s his
estimate of the value of other
Vanity Fair: $400,000
Entertainment Weekly: $250,000
The New York Times Magazine:
[Über-publicist Leslee Dart,
founder and CEO of 42West, who
has worked on Bernard’s films in
the past, says valuing covers this
way is “nonsense.” ]