An Interview with the Makers of Value-Added Cinema

A Product Placement Compendium

1Things would never be the same again. As sales went through the roof, with some breathless estimates in the region of a 200% increase overnight, marketers practically wet their pants at the phenomenal success of the chocolate bar seen by millions in ET: the Extraterrestrial. That was back in 1982. Though not the first instance of product placement ‘at the movies’, the strategic placement of Reese’s Pieces in ET is often hailed as the triumphant marketing moment heralding the onset of the era of embedded advertising in popular media.

2Today, much media consumption is characterised by aggressive branding strategies. We’ve all seen ostentatious product wrangling – the unnatural handling of items (especially chocolate bars and bottled drinks) to best display their logo (regardless of considerations of verisimilitude, or even common sense), and ungainly product mentions in dialogue (who can forget the early Jude Law shocker Shopping?) that have passed into the realm of satire. In television and feature filmmaking, props bearing corporate trademarks not only supplement, but often sustain production budgets. Some programs appear to be entirely contrived around such sponsors. Australian commercial television makes no secret of the increasingly non-existent line between ‘entertainment’ and ‘advertising’, though it still purports to describe ‘lifestyle’ shows as ‘reality’ television.

3With the introduction of technologies like TiVO which enable consumers to skip over ads, the move is from ‘interruptive’ style advertising between programs or segments, to products insinuated in the décor – and increasingly scripts – of programs themselves, with correspondent online shopping opportunities for digital consumers. An entire industry of middle-people – sometimes euphemistically self-described as ‘prop houses’ – has sprung up to service the lucrative product placement industry, orchestrating the insertion of branded products into television and films. The industry has grown to such an extent that it holds an annual backpatting event, the Product Placement Awards, “to commemorate and celebrate product placement” in movies, television shows, music etc.

4But ‘advertising by stealth’ is not necessarily passively accepted by media consumers – nor media makers. The shoe-horning of brands and their logos into the products of popular culture not only defines the culture industry today, but also characterises much of the resistance to it. ‘Logo-backlash’ is seen as an inevitable response to the incursion of brands into public life, an explicit rejection of the practice of securing consumer mindshare, and subvertisements and billboard liberation activities have been mainstays of culture jamming for decades now.

5However, criticism of product placement remains highly problematic: when the Center for the Study of Commercialism argued that movies have become “dangerously” saturated with products and suggested that full disclosure in the form of a list, in a film’s credits, of paid product appearances, many noted the counterproductivity of such an approach, arguing that it would only result in further registration – and hence promotion – of the brand.

6Not everyone subscribes to advertising’s ‘any news is good news’ thesis, however. Peter Conheim and Steve Seidler decided to respond to the behemoth of product placement with a ‘catalogue of sins’. Their new documentary Value Added Cinema meticulously chronicles the appearance of placed products in Hollywood cinema. Here they discuss the film, which is continuing to receive rave reviews in the US and Europe.

7Danni Zuvela: Can you tell me a little about yourselves?

8Peter: I’m a musician and filmmaker living in the San Francisco Bay Area who wears too many hats. I play in three performing and recording groups (Mono Pause, Wet Gate, Negativland) and somehow found the time to sit in front of a Mac for six weeks to edit and mix VALUE-ADDED CINEMA. Because Steve is a persuasive salesperson.

9Steve: I’ve been a curator for the past decade and a half, showing experimental works week after week, month after month, year after year, at the Pacific Film Archive. It was about time to make a tape of my own and Peter was crazy enough to indulge me.

10DZ: Why product placement? Why do you think it’s important? Where did this documentary come from?

11S: Steven Spielberg released Minority Report last year and it just raised my hackles. The film actually encourages the world it seems to critique by stressing the inter-relationship of his alleged art with consumerism in the present day and then extending that into a vision of the future within the film itself. In other words, he has already realized the by-product of an alarming dystopia of surveillance, monolithic policing, and capital. That by-product is his film. The rumor mill says that he was reimbursed to the tune of $25 million for the placements. So not only can he not see a constructive path out of dystopia, a path leading toward a more liberating future, he makes millions from his exhausted imagination. What could be more cynical? But Spielberg isn’t alone within the accelerating subsumption of mainstream cinema into the spectacle of pure consumption. He’s just more visible than most.

12But to consider product placements more directly for a moment: during the past few years, mainstream cinema has been little more than an empty exercise in consumerist viewership. The market-driven incentives that shape films, determining story-lines, exaggerating cultural norms, striving toward particular demographics, whatever, have nothing to do with art or social change and everything to do with profit, pandering, and promulgation. Movies are product placements, the product is a world view of limitless consumption. Value-Added Cinema is about the product-that-announces-itself, the one we recognize as a crystallization of the more encompassing worldview, the sole commodity, spot-lit, adored, assimilated. So why Value-Added Cinema? You’ve got to start somewhere.

13DZ: Can you tell me a bit about the production process – how did you go about getting the examples you use in the film? Were there any copyright hassles?

14P: Steve did nearly all of the legwork in that he spent weeks and weeks researching the subject, both on-line and in speaking to people about their recollections of product placement sequences in films they’d seen. He then suffered through close to a hundred films on VHS and DVD, using the fast-forward and cue controls as often as possible, to locate said sequences. We then sat down and started cutting, based at first on groupings Steve had made (a bunch of fast food references, etc.). Using these as a springboard, we quickly realized the narrative potential inherent in all these “narrative film” clips , and before long we were linking sequences and making them refer to one another, sort of allowing a “plot” to evolve.

15And copyright hassles? Not yet! I say... bring ‘em on! I would be more than happy to fight for the existence of this project, and one of the groups I am in, Negativland, has a rather colourful history of “fair use” battles in the music arena (the most nefarious case, where the band was sued by U2 and their big-label music lawyers over a parody we made happened before I came on board, but there’s been some skirmishes since). We have folks who would be happy to help defend this sort of work in a court of law should the occasion arise.

16DZ: Can you talk to me about the cultural shift that’s occurred, where the old ‘Acme’ propmaster has been replaced by ‘product peddler’? What is this symptomatic of, and what’s its significance now?

17S: In the past, privacy existed because there were areas of experience and information that were considered off limits to exploitation. A kind of tacit social contract assumed certain boundaries were in place to keep corporate (and State) meddling at bay and to allow an uncontaminated space for disengaging from culture. Nowadays the violation of boundaries is so egregious it’s hard to be sure that those boundaries in fact exist. Part of that violation has been the encroachment, at every conceivable level, of daily experience by all manner of corporate messages—urinal strainers with logos, coffee jackets with adverts, decals on supermarket floors, temporary tattoos on random pedestrians. Engagement with corporate predation is now foisted on us 24 hours a day. It’s the GPS generation. The corporations want to know where we “are” at all times. Again: in the past there was a certain level of decorum about the sales pitch. That decorum has vanished and in its place is the inter-penetration of all our waking moments by the foghorn of capital. If that foghorn gets loud enough, we’ll never get any sleep.

18DZ: How do you think product placement affects the integrity of the film?

19P: Well, that’s definitely a question of the moment, as far as audience reactions to our screenings have been thus far. It really depends on the work itself, doesn’t it? I think we would be highly judgmental, and perhaps quite out of line, if we dismissed out of hand the idea of using actual products in films as some sort of rule. The value of using an actual product to the narrative of a film can’t be discounted automatically because we all know that there are stories to be told in actual, marketed products. Characterizations can develop. If a flustered James Cagney had held up a bottle of Fred’s Cola instead of Pepsi in the climactic shot of One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder’s 1963 Coke-executive comedy), it wouldn’t have resonated very well. And it’s an incredibly memorable moment (and, some might say, a little dig at both cola companies).

20But when you get into something like i am sam, where Sean Penn’s character not only works inside a Starbucks, and is shown on the job, in uniform and reading their various actual coffee product names aloud, over and over again, but also rides a bus with a huge Nike ad on the side (and the camera tracks along on the ad instead of the bus itself), plus the fact that he got onto that bus underneath an enormous Apple billboard (not shown in our work, actually), or that his lawyer has a can of Tab sitting on an entirely austere, empty table in front of a blank wall and the camera tracks downward for no other discernable purpose than to highlight the Tab can… you can see where I’m going with this. The battle lines are drawn in my mind. PROVE to me the value of any of those product plugs on Penn’s character, or Michelle Pfeiffer’s (his lawyer).

21DZ: What do you make of the arguments for product placement as necessary to, even enhancing, the verisimilitude of films? Is there a case to be made for brands appearing in a production design because they’re what a character would choose?

22S: It’s who makes the argument for product placements that’s troublesome. Art that I value is a sort of problem solving machine. It assumes that the culture we currently find ourselves strapped with is flawed and should be altered. Within that context, the “verisimilitude” you speak of would be erected only as a means for critique--not to endorse, venerate, or fortify the status quo. Most Hollywood features are little more than moving catalogs.

23P: And in the case of Jurassic Park that couldn’t be more explicit – the “fake” products shown in the amusement park gift shop in the film are the actual tie-in products available in stores and in Burger King at that time!

24Another film I could mention for a totally different reason is The Dark Backward (1991). Apparently due to a particular obsession of the director, the film is riddled with placements, but of totally fake and hilarious products (i.e. Blump’s Squeezable Bacon). Everyone who has seen the film remembers the absurdist products… couldn’t Josie and the Pussycats have followed this format, instead of loading the film with “funny” references to literally every megacorporation imaginable, and have been memorable for it?

25DZ: What do you think of the retroactive insertion of products into syndicated reruns of programs and films (using digital editing techniques)? Is this a troubling precedent?

26P: Again, to me the line is totally crossed. There’s no longer any justification to be made because the time and space of the original television show is lost at that point, so any possibility of “commentary” on the times, or development of the character, goes right out the window. Of course I find it a troubling precedent. It’s perhaps somewhat less troubling, but still distressing, to know that billboards on the walls of sports stadiums are being digitally altered, live, during broadcast, so that the products can be subtly switched around. And perhaps most disturbingly, at least here in the states, certain networks and programs have begun cross-dissolving to advertisements from program content, and vice-versa. In other words, since the advertisers are aware that the long-established “blackout” which precedes the start of advertising breaks on TV causes people to tune out, or turn the volume off, or have their newfangled sensing devices “zap” the commercial… so they’re literally integrating the start of the ad with the final frames of the program instead of going black, literally becoming part of the program. And we have heard about more reliance of products WITHIN the programs, but this just takes us right back to TV’s past, where game show contestants sat behind enormous “Pepsodent” adverts pasted right there on the set. History will eat itself…

27DZ: Could you imagine a way advertisers could work product placement into films where modern products just don’t fit, like set in the past or in alternate universes (Star Wars, LOTR etc)?

28P: Can’t you? In fact, it’s already happening. Someone told us about the use of products in a recent set-in-the-past epic… but the name of the film is escaping me.

29S: And if you can’t find a way to insert a product placement in a film than maybe the film won’t get made. The problem is completely solved with films like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings—most of the characters are available in the store as action figures making them de facto placements. In Small Soldiers just about every toy-sized character was, in fact, nicely packaged by Hasbro.

30DZ: What is the role of the logo in product placement?

31S: There are the stars, and there are the many supporting roles—the logo is just one of them. We’re hoping to see this category at the next Oscars.

32P: And categories like “Best Song” are essentially product placement categories already…

33DZ: I’ve heard about the future of product placement being branding in computer games, interactive shop-at-home television – what other visions of the (branded) future can you imagine?

34P: The future is now. If you can’t watch a documentary on so-called public television in this country without having text boxes pop up on screen to suggest “related” web sites which “might be of interest” to the viewer, you’re already well on the way to being part of a branded environment. Computer games already have ads built-in, and shop-at-home already seems plenty interactive (and isn’t internet shopping, also?). I think if the various mega-corporations can not only convince people to wear clothing emblazoned with their logo and product name, but so successfully convince us to pay for the privilege of advertising them, then we are already living in a totally branded future. Where else can it go? It may seem a trite statement but, to my mind, wearing an entire Nike outfit is the ultimate. At least the British ad company called Cunning Stunts actually PAYS their human billboards… but those folks have to agree to have the company logo temporarily tattooed onto their foreheads for three hours as they mingle in public. I’m not joking about this.

35DZ: Is there any response to product placement? How can audiences manage their interactions with these texts?

36S: Films have been boycotted for culturally heinous content, such as racist and homophobic characters. Why not boycott films because of their commodity content? Or better yet boycott the product for colluding with the filmmakers to invade your peace of mind?

37What I hope Value-Added Cinema does is sensitize us to the insinuation of the products, so that we critically detect them, rather than passively allow them to pass before us. When that happens, when we’re just insensate recipients of those advertising ploys, we’re lost.

38DZ: Do you have anything to add to contemporary debates on culture jamming, especially the charge that culture jamming’s political power is limited by its use of logos and signs? Anne Moore has written that detourning ads ends up just re-iterating the logo - “because corporate lifeblood is profit, and profit comes from name recognition”, culture jammers are “trafficking in the same currency as the corporations” – what do you think of this?

39P: It’s an interesting assertion. But the best culture jams I’ve seen make total mincemeat of the product being parodied; just as you can’t simply discount the use of actual products in films in the context of a narrative, you can’t NOT try to reclaim the use of a brand-name. Maybe it’s a dangerous comparison because “reclaiming” use of the word Coke is not like reclaiming the use of the word “queer”, but there’s something to it, I think.

40Also, I wear t-shirts with the names of bands I like sometimes (almost always my friends’ bands, but I suppose that’s beside the point). Am I buying into the advertising concept? Yes, to a certain extent, I am. I guess to me it’s about just what you choose to advertise. Or what you choose to parody.

41 DZ: Do you have any other points you’d like to make about product placement, advertising by stealth, branding, mindshare or logos?

42P: I think what Steve said, that above all we hope with our video to help make people aware of how much they are advertised to, beyond accepting it as a mere annoyance, sums it up. So far, we’ve had some comments at screenings which indicate a willingness of people to want to combat this in their lives, to want to “do something” about the onslaught of product placement surrounding them, in films and elsewhere.