If you watch Real Steel, there’s one thing that will immediately jump at you above all else. It won’t be the mawkish, cliché-ridden storyline that becomes predictable five minutes in. It won’t even be the laughable plot machinations throughout, such as the artificial weaknesses that are slapped on various robots arbitrarily. It will be the ever-present product placements, so ingrained that it leaves you with the distinct impression that you’re watching a multi-million dollar two hour advert. The main character is so down on his luck that he can’t afford to wear a clean shirt, but he sports Ray Bans. The kid drinks nothing but Dr. Pepper. Every computer, phone and robot controlling device in the future is manufactured by HP. And the amount of pure adverts slapped on the side of arenas is staggering; everything from Sprint and Budweiser to, bizarrely, the Xbox 720.
Product placement is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, the very first cinematic attractions (non-narrative short films lasting no more than a couple of minutes) were almost always funded by corporations, and the first public criticism of product placement in a film came after the 1919 comedy The Garage, which prominently featured Red Crown petrol throughout. Many blockbusters have featured large amounts of product placement; from Reese’s Pieces in E.T. to the infamous Bladerunner curse, where almost all of its high profile sponsors went bankrupt or entered financial difficulty. In fact, it’s been suggested that the main difference between the success of an indie film and an equivalent blockbuster is due to product placement. This is because when a company becomes invested in the film it suddenly becomes mutually beneficial for that film to be a box office success. This leads to a tremendous amount of free advertising, such as free promotional toys with a Happy Meal or TV spots for General Motors comparing their cars to big screen robots.
I have no issue with product placements in general. With the ever rising cost of blockbusters studios need to try and claw back money any way they can, and using brand X instead of a generic product is one of the less offensive ways they can make ends meet. Clever product placement can actually benefit the film – the consumerist message of Fight Club certainly felt stronger with the bombardment of Starbucks logos. The issue is with the insidious trend currently taking place where the product being marketed is done so to the detriment of the film. When James Bond tells the audience in Casino Royale that he wears an Omega, it completely snaps them out of the moment. When Will Smith brags about his choice of shoe in I, Robot, it almost feels like the silent agreement of respect between audience and actor has been broken. And it doesn’t just stop with the insertion of dialogue into movies. As recounted in Morgan Spurlock’s brilliant new documentary on the subject The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, product placement guru Norman Marshall tells a story about how he personally managed to get a scene cut out of a film because it negatively portrayed a client of his.
A lot of people are worried at the minute about the current experiment going on with inserting current adverts into reruns of American sitcoms. I’m not too worried about that; when the screen is already filled with the broadcaster’s logo and adverts along the bottom for upcoming shows, I’m not sure how much artistic integrity is left. But such a practice shows that with the decline of regular forms of advertising companies are looking for new ways to get their products out their way. If they manage to make themselves as prominent across all blockbusters as they are across some, it could herald the end of the Hollywood auteur.