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Nov. 16 2009 - 1:05 pm | 571 views | 1 recommendation | 15 comments

2012: The Year Product Placement Will Destroy All Integrity in Movies

Amanda Peet

Image via Wikipedia

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    At the end of that movie (which was otherwise great if you like disaster movies, which I do) my friend yells out “What!? The emotional climax of your movie is that a little girl no longer pees herself? Why would you want to send everybody home angry!”

    But I don’t think that Huggies ruined the movie any more than the corpse of Danny Glover ruined the movie, or how all of the characters were immune to hypothermia while swimming about in a Tibetan tsunami. By which I mean to say that movies like this are always ruined, but still fun.

    What bears further discussion though is what does it say about me (and you) that we spent most of the movie totally agreeing with Oliver Platt? There were various points when I thought “when Platt just shoots Ejiofor in the face, should I cheer, or just nod silently in agreement.”

  2. collapse expand

    While reading your post I had to put down my always cool Coke to consider that maybe the great products seen in films are distracting from the script.

    When I see those delicious melt in your mouth M&M’s my thoughts are of the concession stand not the world ending. It happened during ET when Reeces Pieces were munched down, everyone loves those little taste sensations everyday, thank god I had my daily peanut butter allowance this morning with Reece’s Pieces breakfast cereal just packed with vitamins and minerals.

    It has maybe gone too far with Evian, even though Evian is the purist and most refreshing bottled water out there doesn’t mean that the most attractive actors should be seen drinking it all the time, no matter how much they insist on it in their contracts. They are so weight conscious and some insist on Diet Dr. Pepper for its wonderful flavor without realizing THERE’S MORE TO IT and NOTHING DIET ABOUT IT.

    You must know that Product Placement is not just the exclusive area of films. I have heard that readers are now insisting that books carry more realism, for instance, movies are pretty tame and can’t show what a turn on drinking Sprite is and while movies have certain ratings, literature can speak more to the truth. More and more novels can speak to the fact that the Verizon Nation can have their characters speaking on their phones from anywhere. Readers want to know that the Vampires in Twilight use iphones, because when the sun is coming up they need to know and there’s an app for that.

    So you’re right it has gone too far, maybe, I mean what’s next? Blogging?

  3. collapse expand

    Ryan and Elie –

    Agreeing with Platt on the practicality of preserving the species is one thing – who wouldn’t want to do so? The bigger question is probably one regarding the method used to do it. Is it really worth saving the species by alllowing only the super rich to live because they’re the only ones who can finance the venture? Wall Street Titans and Russian oligarchs are the future of the species?!?

    I think not.

    Evidently, neither did the film makers – thus the line from Glover’s character that they, “should have had a lottery.” This, I think, was an obvious admission that they would like to have written it that way but, hey, that was how they did it in “Deep Impact.” And, let’s face it, that would be the way to go.

    As for the Huggies – that was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen on film, and it should top everyone’s list of the worst last lines in the history of film. Other than that, I loved the movie. It was exactly what I expected it to be – FUN!

  4. collapse expand

    One more question to ask about the Platt character –

    Would you have argued against opening the doors to let the workers in as the ships were leaving?

    • collapse expand

      Sorry Ryan, I just read that piece again and, apparently you would have kept the doors closed. WOW!

      And anyway – what made Platt’s character so important that he belonged on the ship in the first place? President – sure. Some fucking White house staff dickweed – fuck him!

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Let me be clear, lest I ever find myself in a position of immense power with the responsibility of saving humanity — I would have *absolutely* kept the doors closed. Opening the doors was one of the dumbest things I’ve seen in the history of disaster movies. Right up there with Nedry turning off the raptor fences and nuking Houston when you haven’t proven you get get through the alien defense shield)

        I totally agree with Ryan here. You have a plan, you spend years developing it, and at the last minute (literally) you change to something that isn’t even on your list of contingencies? No way. I’ll take one for the team there and be the prick that killed everybody to save everybody else. And I would have had Ejiofer in a brigg faster than you can say “suspension of habeas corpus.”

        (BTW: I assumed Platt was playing the White House chief of staff, which gives him a lot of power, but no executive authority, per my understanding of the Constitution and The West Wing.)

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          On the matter of the doors – I think anyone who would keep them shut should increase the food stocks of the saved by one person’s share and throw themselves out the window to join the dying masses. :)

          In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Absolutely: Doors stay shut.

          SPOILER ALERT: Yes, they eventually get them closed (what mechanical problem has ever been solved that quickly in the history of mechanized transportation?), but at the risk of wiping out a third of what’s left of humanity — and wiping out, as I understand it, all of what would be left of America.

          Oliver Platt was COS, as stated above, I’m pretty sure. There was also, I think, some executive order or legislation putting him in the chain of command to keep continuity of government in the event that the POTUS and Speaker of the House and VP, etc., were dead or not available.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            I don’t remember there being legislation regarding Platt’s character. I just remember him saying he was in charge because the POTUS stayed behind and the others didn’t make it.

            I do admit that the 2012 super-rich-live-fuck-the-rest plan is actually more realistic in this world of ours. But would you guys really prefer this system? I might even agree to keep the doors shut if everyone had a chance at a seat to begin with.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    If I’m following all this correctly, you’re telling me John Cusack’s co-star is a pair of Huggies Pull-ups. The very same John Cusack from Say Anything, The Grifters, Grosse Pointe Blank, Being John Malkovich, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and even Must Love Dogs, in which none of his co-stars were or wore Huggies Pull-ups. That John Cusack.

    This truly is the end of the world as we know it and I do not feel fine.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

    Comments, questions, news tips, creative verbal abuse, etc. can be sent to: editor-at-ryansager.com.

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