Every year brings about more aggressive, sometimes nonsensical stabs at movie product placement. While the idea of ancillary merchandising accompanying big blockbusters (blankets, backpacks and every conceivable type of gear featuring beloved characters) has been well-established from “Star Wars” onwards, ever more blatant product placement on-screen and around a movie’s release continues its metastasizing development. Here are some disturbingly “innovative” highlights and examples of both from 2013.
On the relatively innocuous side, Red Robin introduced two “Wolverine” tie-in burgers no worse than what they already offer. “As the gourmet burger expert, we are particularly excited to unveil our Wolverine-inspired burgers, sure to pack as much punch as the action-packed thriller!” Red Robin’s senior vice president and chief marketing officer Denny Marie Post said about the “Berserker Burger” “inspired by everyone’s favorite anti-hero” (“topped with zesty aioli, spicy pickles, Sriracha onion straws and cheddar cheese”) and the “Red’s Tavern Double” (“exotic, Asian-inspired”).
More cynically, Subway partnered with Disney to promote “Monsters University” and “The Lone Ranger.” Average consumer consumption at Subway is about on par, unhealthiness-wise, with the average McDonald’s combo, but Subway Director of Marketing Development Michelle Cordial blithely said that through the partnership "we are reinforcing to families the importance of healthy eating and the empowerment they get at Subway." The same press release went on to note that “The SUBWAY®-Disney relationship stems from a shared value of family, and the importance of educating children on eating right and leading healthy, active lifestyles.” (Disney has also partnered with Lilly Diabetes to produce, among other things, a novelization of a “Hannah Montana” episode about supporting friends with Type 1).
Rock bottom was probably reached by “Free Birds,” the first film actively promoted by Chuck E. Cheese. At Eater, a disgusted Joshua David Stein recapped the plot: turkeys voiced by Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson go back in time to prevent the Pilgrims from making consumption of their kind an annual holiday tradition, succeeding when some Chuck E. Cheese pizza is “delivered by a happy-go-lucky stoner who has time-traveled with them,” the necessary inciting incident for a new family feast centerpiece. The movie also includes plugs for the burgeoning Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf chain as well as airport/mall staple Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. As part of the “Free Birds” promotional efforts, parenting blogs were recruited for giveaways including an “at-home baking kit.” Cross-marketing doesn’t discriminate, as one of the giveaways was organized by the “Gay NYC Dad” blog.
Much-derided for its conspicuous Papa John’s and Cinnabon plugs, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” also boasts a significant partnership with Delta Airlines, which showed a six-minute preview “exclusive to Delta flights” and set up a sweepstakes to win SkyMiles. “‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ centers on aspirational travel, adventure and exploration – a natural fit with Delta,” said Delta’s senior marketing VP Tim Mapes. In the same press release, his Fox counterpart was quoted as saying that “This film is all about stepping outside your comfort zone and experiencing life. Delta also offers the chance to live out your own adventures, so we know this program will connect with travelers.”
Car product placement remains serious business. Will Ferrell cut about 70 spots for Dodge Durango as part of a deliberate attempt to go viral and succeeded: October sales of the vehicles jumped up 59% over the same month in 2012. Results were less gratifyingly clear for Audi, whose R8 was in “Iron Man 3.” (This article notes that Tony Stark has generally stuck to Audis in his solo franchise, but was given an Acura for “The Avengers.”) “This is a strategic collaboration for us,” according to Loren Angelo, Audi’s brand-marketing GM. “Similar to the position of the R8 as an innovation leader, Iron Man's character consistently evolves throughout the trilogy as he masterminds new trends in technology and engineering.”
Audi is currently neck-and-neck with Mercedes, with both luxury car manufacturers in a race to dethrone reigning champ BMW. With Mercedes outselling Audi for the first time this year, perhaps some credit may be given to “A Good Day To Die Hard,” which featured no less than 14 different Mercedes-Benz models. “An exciting film with many emotionally appealing vehicles," said Anders Sundt Jensen, Head of Brand Communication Mercedes-Benz Cars. "Mercedes-Benz vehicles stand for safety, performance and distinctive design. And they are at home in all major European cities. This suits them perfectly and completely authentically to the screenplay. For example, the G-Class, Sprinter, Unimog and Zetros are the ideal ‘hero cars’ for the hard-as-nails requirements of John and Jack McClane.”
It’s not all about selling products; moral uplift is also on the cross-promotional agenda. In addition to a predictably expansive array of merchandising, “Despicable Me 2” allowed footage to be repurposed for a series of PSAs aired during donated media time by the National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse with the theme “Take Time to Be a Dad Today.” “We are excited to have the ‘Despicable Me 2’ characters relay the importance of father involvement,” said NRFC Director Kenneth Braswell. “We hope this initiative connects even more people to Fatherhood.gov for useful tips and tools to make parenting easier.”
It may initially seem to be missing the point by offering $15 off any “Pain & Gain” DVD bought by those who’ve purchased any product in star Mark Wahlberg’s new “Marked” brand of nutritional supplements. If that film is about excess in all forms including exercise and gross greed, Wahlberg’s hard sell seems particularly ill-judged. Sold through the GNC nutritional supplements chain, “Marked”’s current website (“build mass, get lean, get ripped”) offers a free ticket for “Lone Survivor” for those who purchase $39.99 or more of Wahlberg’s new product. That also seems to go against the would-be high-minded, support-the-troops mentality, more-than-a-movie talking points the film’s been wrapping itself in. But as Wahlberg explains in a promotional video launching “Marked,” it’s about more than making money: “If I can inspire people to live up to their full potential and to work hard, live a healthy lifestyle, that’s a blessing.”
The relentless product placement in the dreadful, nearly-dance-free “Battle Of The Year” included the instant classic line “This is the new Sony tablet — it’s the future!” Future film scholars may well to point to this as an ultimate nadir for intra-corporate product placement promoting the technological portfolio of the company that also owns the distributor. “Iron Man 3” had a similarly blunt pitch when Tony Stark specifically asks for a FIOS connection for maximum speed, but that really is pretty speedy so fair enough.
By far the year’s strangest new technology push took place in the ineptly made, commercially unsuccessful cyber-thriller “Paranoia.” In a thriller pivoting around a new cell phone prototype, you’d expect plenty of tablet placement, but the biggest plug is for the Fisker Karma, a short-lived luxury hybrid electric car. The promotion was announced half a year after a Fisker being tested by “Consumer Reports” died after less than 200 miles, a first for the magazine. In November, the company filed for bankruptcy despite a government loan (a loss of $139 million).
Being highlighted in “Paranoia” couldn’t help reverse the company’s downward trajectory, which included battery failures and destruction of unsold vehicles during Hurricane Sandy. So much for the movie’s attempt to make the vehicle glamorous and desirable, something worth selling one’s soul for; Harrison Ford said throwing protagonist Liam Hemsworth a Fisher helps kickstart the young engineer’s “seduction.” Hemsworth’s take? “It goes super quick and doesn’t really make any sound,” he said. “It’s all about what my character is aiming for. He’s a smart guy and he’s always wanted to live the high life.”
Besides “Walter Mitty” and “Anchorman 2,” the year’s most extensive cross-promotional campaigns included $170 million’s worth in and around “Man Of Steel.” But you don’t have to go all out like that: you can focus on a few specific business partnerships with an unapologetically mercantile straight-forwardness. The “Partners” section of the official “Grown Ups 2” website suggests what an especially terrible kind of mainstream future might look like, with shorter plugs down below for the Lids hat store chain and photo app Shutterfly.
But up top is Kmart’s section, expanding on the lengthy amount of time the movie spends there. “Kmart keeps the fun from ‘Grown Ups 2’ going all summer long with the Shop Your Way Stars of Summer Sweepstakes!,” the winner of which will get to be an extra in the next Happy Madison production. “Kmart is featured throughout ‘Grown Ups 2’ as a hometown favorite. This ties into the theme of the movie and further establishes the brand as the store of choice for entertainment properties to engage shoppers in an exciting way.” Whether this or Guy Fieri’s recipe for tie-in chili constitutes a greater insult to the human spirit is up for debate.