Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Product placement

What it’s about: Why, a practice as American as Sara Lee™ apple pie. You may not have noticed, but just now we slipped the name of a consumer product into an otherwise neutral sentence. Such a practice has become rampant in American media, with nearly every movie and TV show paid to ever-so-subtly promote a product or service, by having a character conspicuously mention the name of their car repeatedly, or hold their phone with the logo facing the camera. Is product placement sullying the sanctity of art? Or is it providing a lifeline for low-rated shows and small-budget movies to cover some expenses? It’s a more difficult question than the ones in Trivial Pursuit™, which is fun for the whole family.

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A German countess reading magazine Die Woche. The photo appeared in an issue of Die Woche.

Strangest fact: Product placement in mass media is as old as mass media. In 1873’s Around The World In Eighty Days, Jules Verne mentioned several prominent transport and shipping companies, although it’s not known whether he did so for money, or simply to add verisimilitude to the story. With the advent of photography, photos of a prominent person holding a periodical or product was considered invaluable exposure, and product placement was off to the races.

Biggest controversy: Movie product placement is as old as movies themselves. The earliest actualities—films of everyday scenes that are among the earliest motion pictures—often included product placement, and film industry trade Harrison’s Reports was complaining that commercial influence was ruining movies nearly as soon as the publication launched in 1919. The magazine wrote a scathing editorial when Corona typewriters paid to appear prominently in 1925’s The Lost World and other contemporary films. Even the first-ever Best Picture winner, Wings, included Hershey’s chocolate.

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Thing we were happiest to learn: There’s a significant backlash against product placement. While the U.S. allows nearly any level of product placement, as long as it’s acknowledged in closing credits under the heading “promotional considerations,” the U.K. has strict laws against the practice. Product placement was banned until 2011, and since then, only certain products can be advertised, they can’t have “undue prominence,” and if a company pays for product placement, a “PP” icon must appear on-screen at the beginning and end of the show and after every commercial break. Product placement is also forbidden on the publicly funded BBC.

Dammit, Jim, that interface looked dated 250 years ago!

There’s also an audience backlash against product placement. Will Smith vehicle I, Robot was widely ridiculed for the sheer density of product placement—Audi, Converse, Dos Equis, JVC, and Ovaltine are all plugged in the first 10 minutes. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is also notorious for a moment in which James T. Kirk uses a Nokia phone… in a scene set in the year 2255.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Product placement is actually becoming the reason movies are made. Two family-oriented made-for-TV movies from 2010, Secrets Of The Mountain and The Jensen Project, were produced by Walmart and Procter & Gamble, primarily as a vehicle for product placement from those two companies. (Jensen also included a demo of Microsoft’s not-yet-released Kinect.) Jensen was a low-rated critical failure, but Secrets got a sizable viewership, an the audience didn’t seem to mind that it had nearly as many references to Walmart as Where The Heart Is.

Also noteworthy: CGI is being used extensively to put products both into and out of the picture. TV shows will sometimes film a blank table, and add in their sponsor’s products in post-production. Wikipedia even floats the terrifying nightmare scenario in which older shows could be re-run with product placement digitally inserted, or customize product placement based on the viewer’s habits.

Conversely, digital effects can also take a product out of a film. Mercedes-Benz objected to one of its cars parked in a slum in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, so the filmmakers removed the logo digitally, despite the process “costing tens of thousands of pounds.” Most movie productions simply cover an unwanted logo with tape.

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Sweet, life-giving high fructose corn syrup!

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: One of the most egregious examples of product placement in cinema history comes from Mac And Me, widely considered one of the worst movies ever made. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s appear with almost comical frequency throughout the film, to the point where characters’ lives are actually saved by drinking Coke, and there’s a lengthy and completely gratuitous dance number at McDonald’s. Follow the McDonald’s link, and click through to McDonald’s urban legends, which include debunked rumors about the hamburger chain using everything from cow eyeballs to earthworms to genetically modified monsters in place of beef. There was also a rumor in the ’80s that McDonald’s was funding the IRA, when it turned out the company was in fact funding its employees’ individual retirement accounts.

It really is a nice-lookin’ battery.

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Further down the wormhole: Some films have the decency to flog fake products on screen. From the Morleys sucked down by The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man, to its competitor Red Apple (smoked in every Quentin Tarantino movie), to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, many enduring fictional brands have been created, often when a real-life brand of marshmallows doesn’t want to be associated with bringing about the end of the world. There are so many fictional brands, in fact, that we may have found something too numerous for even Wikipedia to count. We’ll take a look next week, as our publishing schedule is as reliable as Duracell batteries!