Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Brand runner

I have written here before about the centrality of "images of the future" to the study of alternative futures, most recently in relation to the intriguing "future documentary" genre. Last week in one of my classes, we watched extracts from a much more mainstream source -- the Hollywood dream factory -- in the form of Blade Runner. I'll resist providing a recap of the story here -- an exercise unnecessary for those who have seen it and inadvisable for those who have not; suffice it to say that anyone who reads this weblog is encouraged to see Ridley Scott's marvellously realised 01982 dystopian sci-fi film noir.

This movie is notable, from a futurist's point of view, for at least two reasons. First, it is exceptionally well thought out, as reflected in, for instance, its ranking as the best "futurist movie" of all time according to Josh Calder's Futurist at the Movies websit. On a list of 118 films, it comes out no. 1 overall across ratings for futurism, entertainment, and plausibility. With a 9/10 score, it is also the highest rated on the first of those three metrics, which addresses the quality of the scenario presented: "Is the movie a thoughtful, coherent view of the future? Does it present something innovative? Does it depict an elaborate scenario, an event, or a single variable?" (The strength of the scenario is certainly due, in part, to its provenance as a story by the brilliantly twisted Philip K. Dick, whose work has also inspired Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, and -- you can't win 'em all -- Paycheck, featuring the lamentable Ben Affleck.) Second, it actually names in the credits a "Visual Futurist", Syd Mead. Few "science-fiction" films bear the marks of such careful visual craftsmanship, and the reward here is that even 25 years later, the look of the film (which is set in 02019) though dated, does not come off as silly as you might expect. Granted, the heyday of the flying-car future may have passed some time back, but the atmosphere and gritty realism of the genre convention lends the story, and especially the setting, Scott's Los Angeles of twelve years hence a sort of counterfictional coherence all its own.

But in particular, it was a memorable shot of a huge advertising billboard for Coca-Cola on the side of an enormous skyscraper in this future megalopolis (see image above), one of the more obvious of many brand-brandishing moments in the film, which led me to wonder about the state of play around the advertising strategy of product placement in the movies (what it is; how it works).

What people consume visually does seem to have significant potential to affect their buying habits; for instance, last week it was reported that white American teenagers exposed to R-rated movies are far more likely to smoke than their non movie-watching counterparts. And broadly, the trend towards integration of advertising with storytelling has been well established. In the era of "most repeatable programming" (Steven Johnson) when every frame of a successful movie -- later, DVD -- release may be watched tens or hundreds of times over, guaranteeing brand exposure to an attentive viewership over many years, from the advertiser's perspective this may prove a better investment than TV commercial broadcasts during prime-time. (Of course, such a payoff is contingent on the success of the film, making product placement, like other aspects of film production, a giant gamble on the fickle tastes of the crowd.) Even so, it's no surprise that one Hollywood producer quoted in a Slate article suggests that "Product placement gigs will become a major source of production financing in the future". But as interesting as that trend may be, it is not the future of product placement that interests me here: rather, it's product placement in "the future".

Products may appear in filmed futures for a spectrum of reasons, from the artistically defensible to the purely commercial. From a filmmaker's point of view, brands onscreen may legitimately enable greater verisimilitude with, or even critique of, a commercialised future (for example, Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future Part II, made in 01989 but set in 02015, jokes about the then-seemingly endless Jaws franchise). On the other hand, it can also come across as crass commercialisation -- selling out the future. One business writer, marvelling at a recent "science fiction" movie that somehow seemed to resist the product placement rush, observed: "It may very well be that product placements continue to work in contempory movie situations but blatantly extending brands hundreds of years into the future risks a backlash from consumers." The criminally underrated Mike Judge satire Idiocracy (02006) subversively hopes to generate exactly that, by depicting the cultural vacuity of a future America after 500 years of unabated commercialisation and dumbing-down. The brands referenced therein -- some disguised more artfully than others -- appear more in the vein of grim social commentary than cinematic salesmanship, the latter being better exemplified by the likes of I, Robot (seen as success; seen as sellout; on striking the balance).

So it's a complex matter to determine how and to what extent such appearances work alternately to promote or condemn a product. But the fact remains that stories set in the future are used by commercial vendors to sell their wares. Blade Runner alone features not only the Coke billboard, but also, according to one eagle-eyed observer, some thirty other products and brands; the fortunes of several of which plummeted in the years following the film's release, which unofficially earned it an interesting reputation for being "cursed". (Whether there was any causal connection here, or if this even represented higher than the average attrition rate for companies falling on tough times, perhaps readers of this blog would know how to find out better than I do.) Filling in the futurescape with current brand-names proceeds apace -- take any big-ticket American movie with an explicitly future setting, and I wager you'll be able to find prominent signs of brand-name involvement in bringing that story to the screen... see for yourself.

So, a question that crossed my mind was this: Do advertisers pay a premium for the privilege of implanting their products in the futurescape of viewers? I found this article from The New York Times in 01993:
An auto maker with a glorious past is using a film of the present to reassure consumers that it has a future. When Warner Brothers opens "Demolition Man" today at more than 2,000 theaters nationwide, moviegoers watching Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes play cop and robber in the year 2032 can see the results of an unusual product placement promotion by the Oldsmobile division of General Motors.

Rather than simply helping to sell more cars, the promotion is intended to burnish the images of Oldsmobile and G.M. by linking them to the presumed technological wonders of tomorrow.

"We felt being involved in this movie, set in the future, would send a subtle message to the public that G.M. was alive and well in 2032," said Eric Dahlquist, president at the Vista Group, a product exposure management company in Van Nuys, Calif., that handles promotional activities like product placement and licensing.

It seems movie product placement represents a sort of speculative bidding on mental real estate (Terry Rossio), motivated by the investor's hope that the film in question will endure. At best, it could even become a classic, taking the product along for the ride into movie history, becoming a staple of our diet of visual culture -- an evergreen advertisement. But this strategy also stakes a deeper claim in the ideational landscape, sending a "subtle message" that not only the product or brand, and the sponsoring company, but indeed the matrix of political, economic and social practices that underpins it all, are all "alive and well" in the future shown. When a Lexus appears in Minority Report (released 02002, set in 02054) it's not just branding cars in that filmic universe, for is it not meanwhile claiming some sort of legitimacy or plausibility for a world in which individualistic and resource-intensive car culture -- more highly technologised, but still fully recognisable -- thrives for another half-century?

The broader issue of interest here becomes whether product placement in a future setting is always merely a superficial detail of how a story gets told; or whether, by contrast -- even in the best of cinematic "science-fiction" -- it's somehow integral to smuggling more deeply into our culture, at the behest of a rather narrow but (of necessity) financially powerful interest group, certain beliefs and expectations about the future. To what extent, then, does that huge Coke poster simply project and reinscribe the assumptions of the filmmaker's present, and to what extent does it enable us to scrutinise and critique them?

/To be continued.../