2012: The Year Product Placement Will Destroy All Integrity in Movies
I saw 2012 over the weekend. Yes, it was dumb. But I love the dumb spectacle movie — it can be done better and it can be done worse, but there will be explosions and people running about. So, it tends to be good fun. As for 2012 itself, the mayhem was pretty spectacular, the plot was fine if a little hinky, and — as usual — I found myself agreeing with the political views of the movie’s ostensible villain.
[Side note on the villain thing: Oliver Platt plays a high-up White House official who takes a cold-hearted view of preserving continuity of the human species in the face of the crazy planet-destroying threat facing humanity. He's entirely right on every practical question, yet the movie prods us to feel that he should have alerted the public to Armageddon years in advance so that anarchy could overtake the planet and that he should — at the last possible minute — risk the survival of the human species to salve the conscience of the movie's lead scientist. I felt no such thing.]
Okay, back to my point. I won’t be giving away too much to tell you that 2012 involves one of the most ludicrous seeming product placements in movie history: The hero’s 7-year-old daughter wearing Huggies Pull-Ups. The pull-ups problem is introduced in the first act (and, if you see a gun in the first act…). They don’t appear in the second act. But — and truly, I’m not giving anything away here, I don’t think, but possible spoiler alert — the Huggies Pull-Ups end up featuring in the last two lines of the movie, which go roughly as such:
Annoying 7-year-old daughter: I don’t need Pull-Ups anymore!
The insufferable John Cusack: Nice!
That’s the end of the movie. Trillions of dollars worth of special effects. Years of people’s lives making this movie. And it ends with a non sequitur (there has been no character development of the daughter to justify this line) about diapers.
What’s the deal? Presumably product placement (though I can’t find any news stories confirming it). Regardless of this particular instance, though, we all know that product placement has become rife in movies and TV (TV especially needs it these days, with people fast-forwarding through DVR’d commercials). Product placement is a running meta-joke on “30 Rock.” It’s a non-joke on most every other show.
But does it work?
One team took a look, in this study (abstract), “The Effectiveness of Brand Placements in the Movies: Levels of Placements, Explicit and Implicit Memory, and Brand-Choice Behavior.” Cognitive Daily takes a look:
Moonhee Yang and David Roskos-Ewoldsen showed 373 students from the University of Alabama one of 15, 20-minute movie clips taken from major Hollywood films. Around the middle of each clip was a single product placement of interest. These products had been pre-selected by a preference panel to be roughly equally appealing. Another panel assessed the importance of the product in the movie’s storyline by placing it in one of three categories: Background (not important to story), Used by Character, and Story Connection (meaning the product was actually related to the plot of the movie). This table lists all the products and films in the study:
After watching the movie clip and completing a survey with demographic information and questions about how much they liked it, the students were given a “word game study” where they were presented with partially completed words and asked to complete them. The purpose of this test is to see if the students were biased to complete the words with the brand-names they saw in the movies. For example, they might be given a word like C_KE. This could be completed as both “CAKE” and “COKE.” Most of the words they completed had nothing to do with the brands in the film they saw — but they might have been a brand in one of the other clips. Then after another distractor task, the students were directly asked which brands they saw in the clip. So did seeing a brand-name in the movie affect the responses? Here are the results:
As you can see, if the product was actually used in the clip, it was recognized significantly more often than if it was just a part of the background. However, there was no apparent advantage for having the product play a role in the story of the movie: whether the product was just used by a character in the film or it was a part of the plot, there was no difference in how often it was recognized.
So, if that Pull-Ups thing was product placement, they really didn’t need to try to make it part of the plot (especially not in such a half-assed way) — showing it a couple times was enough.
I’m actually not a purist on these things, despite my headline on this post. Movies are commerce, and people have to make a buck. But a study like this shows product placement can achieve its aims without intruding too much on the plot. So, Hollywood, maybe no more Pull-Ups? That’d be nice.