Another day in product placement hell

Warning: I’m going to steer out of my lane here, because every now and then I feel the need to apply my skills as a writer and my temperament as a compassionate human being to matters that extend beyond digital music. I’m signalling first, so you don’t have to follow me if you’d rather not.

So, I’ve come here today, first, to consider the phenomenon of product placement. By 2019 product placement has been a standard-issue capitalist strategy for a long time. While there are examples of real-life products seen on camera in movies that date back to the earlier part of the 20th century, the idea didn’t become a conscious, proactive corporate advertising strategy until the 1980s; the famous story of how Hershey’s agreed to do a major advertising tie-in for Reese’s Pieces with E.T. in exchange for the candy’s use in the movie remains a bellwether moment. (M&Ms had been the first choice, but Mars, the parent company, either didn’t want to make the investment, or didn’t want to create this association, or both.) Decades later, we all know that corporations spend millions of dollars annually to slip their products onto movie and television screens as naturally as possible. What better advertising, the theory goes, than to have a character, in the context of a story being told, drinking a Diet Coke or driving a BMW or otherwise engaging, however briefly or tangentially, with an identifiable consumer product?

A prominent example from recent years is how Heineken paid 45 million British pounds to change James Bond’s drink of choice from the famous “shaken, not stirred” martini to a familiar green bottle of Dutch beer in the 2012 movie Skyfall.

Heineken, and all the other corporate entities who push their products, for pay, into movies and TV shows, do not do this for their health, or to subsidize the art of movie-making; they do it because they believe there is behavioral impact. You may think that you personally are immune to such huckster-ish ploys, and you, personally, maybe are. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more millions of others who, consciously or not, are influenced by the appearance of recognizable brands within films and TV shows.

The bottom line is that product placement would not exist if it weren’t working.

Which makes me wonder, with an aching heart and accumulating rage, why so few people seem to think twice about the impact of violence in movies, and gun violence in particular. The relentless parade of characters incessantly pulling out guns and firing them at will has become so commonplace that maybe collectively we don’t even seem to see it any more.

So: Heineken paid big money to have James Bond drink a Heineken, because it assumed that real-life people will be influenced by this particular screen behavior. And yet we’re supposed to think that people are not at all, ever, influenced by screen behavior that involves firearms?

The NRA must be laughing all the way to the bank. Consumer product companies have to pay a pretty penny to have their products placed on screen. When it comes to guns, Hollywood is perfectly happy inserting them however and wherever they can and the NRA doesn’t have to pay a dime.

Now then, many people point out that we in America are hardly the only ones exposed to gun violence in our daily entertainment, which is obviously true. This argument is used quickly and incessantly to deny any link between on-screen behavior and real-life mayhem. If the movies and the video games were the problem, goes this theory, then there would be gun violence everywhere, not just in the U.S.

But this is rhetorical sleight of hand. To conclude that exposure to relentless violence via entertainment has no impact on actual behavior is to ignore at least two important differences that afflict American audiences uniquely. First is the general environment of gun worship that exists pretty much only in the United States among so-called “advanced” countries, which has been accelerated in recent decades by how the 2nd Amendment has come to be interpreted, regardless of its original intent. (Only two other countries include a right to bear arms in their constitutions—Mexico and Guatemala—and in both cases severe restrictions are involved.)

The second difference is the obviously related fact that it is far easier to own a gun here than just about anywhere else on earth.

And so it is sophistry at best to say that real-life gun violence in the U.S. must, without question, have no connection to the preponderance of on-screen gun violence simply because everyone around the world watches the same violent movies and plays the same violent video games. This argument continues to conveniently overlook the fact that people in other countries don’t watch these movies and play these video games within a culture that fetishizes guns, and within the boundaries of a country that shamefully disregards the inherent danger of firearms by allowing these products to be so easily purchased and so flimsily regulated.

Meaning that on-screen gun violence simply can’t provoke real-life violence in other countries the way it can here. This is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

(Note that I am avoiding arguing against gun violence in entertainment on the merits. I am not saying it is almost literally insane to be so consistently entertained in our movies and in our games by things that would in real life be horrific. Well actually I guess I just said that but that’s not the point of this particular post.)

Let’s assume as so many seem to that there is in fact not a thing wrong with gun violence in the entertainment sphere. But let’s put aside this collective delusion that the truly lunatic amount of gun violence we are subject to on the screen can’t possibly be influencing gun violence off the screen, not in a guns-for-everyone-all-the-time country such as ours.

Side note: remember how movie characters always used to smoke in movies? Once the cultural tide shifted, as the ’80s blurred into the ’90s, and it was clear to one and all that smoking cigarettes presented a major public health risk, Hollywood stopped the ubiquitous presentation of characters matter-of-factly smoking cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is common now only in period pieces—so we can all say, “Wow, in the ’60s, look how much everyone smoked!”—and (think about it) to signal bad behavior in a particular character. Movies by and large never feature heroes who smoke all the time for the simple reason that Hollywood doesn’t want to be seen as endorsing something known to be so harmful. Because everyone knows that what people watch on a screen as entertainment can affect personal behavior. Everyone knows this but stops knowing it when it comes to gun violence.

With common-sense—which is to say, strict—gun regulation, sure, okay, if you must, bring on the violent entertainment. Make it all but impossible for someone to be behaviorally influenced by heroes (and anti-heroes) firing guns in movies and we won’t have to worry about the influence. The way most other countries don’t really have to worry about it, because they have the common good of their citizenry in mind via restrictions and regulations in place regarding the ownership of deadly products.

But without anything resembling a responsible or rational approach to gun ownership, the ceaseless and often outright mindless use of guns in our entertainment vehicles is nothing more or less than product placement for the NRA.

When a gun in some cases is as easy (or even easier?) to buy than a six-pack of Heineken, I can’t see how there aren’t people out there taking all the gunfire to heart. We of course can’t know, without close and careful study, the extent of the connection, but it is morally and intellectually bankrupt to turn a complete blind eye to the issue, to look at the horrific norm we’ve created around gun violence in our entertainment and just say “Nope! Nothing to see here!” Remember: product placement wouldn’t be a thing if it didn’t work.

2 thoughts on “Another day in product placement hell”

  1. Thanks for this. I’m not, admittedly, more qualified than you are to make this argument — I’ve studied the history and psychology advertising from the outside, I’ve never worked in the industry and never would — but your core argument one I’ve made often. The more we learn about the human brain, the better centrally adapted ours brains seem to be to imitate: to learn language, values, and behaviors from the people around us. And we don’t seem to have much instinctive filter between “real person” and “imaginary person”. So yeah, if ads influence us, the stories they interrupt too.

    Except that you add a worthwhile angle I’d missed. That because the US makes it much easier to be influenced by violent movies, the effects of movie violence would of course be bigger here. Yes. Perfect sense.


    1. Thanks for reading, and for the supportive (and level-headed) comment. On top of everything else, the cultural forces at work here seem to almost purposefully require people to be ranting and raving in this arena rather than observing and discussing. Ranting and raving amplifies page views but gets us nowhere helpful.


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