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Food-related product placements are taking over entertainment

The trouble all started back in 1982 with a little movie about an alien visitor called E.T. He warmed our hearts, captured our imaginations, and made us crave Reese’s Pieces like there was no tomorrow.

Following the first release of the movie, the sale of Reese’s Pieces literally tripled.

It wasn’t the first product placement ever, but E.T. was so successful that movie studios, corporations and advertising agencies couldn’t help but take notice. It was a subtle nudge to the candy counter for consumer, subliminal advertising that was in plain view. It’s the perfect vehicle.

These days product placements can take many forms. Some are so far in the background of movies that they could just be there for realism’s sake – we do live in a world where billboards occupy the skyline and pop machines are around every corner. The star of the movie has to drive some kind of car in the big chase scene. People do eat at McDonald’s.

Some product placements are no so subtle. In the recent movie "Showtime", Rene Russo orders a Coke at a diner. The cook asks if she wouldn’t prefer a Diet Coke, and Russo says she’ll stick with the regular.

That particular scene didn’t advance the plot or add any insight into the character played by Rene Russo, or the cook at the diner for that matter. Come to think of it, the cook had all of five lines, and one of them was a product placement.

Starbucks isn’t just on every corner anymore, it’s in every motion picture. That particular brand name was hawked in "Zoolander", "I Am Sam", and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." All of these movies have been universally criticized for product placements, even though they are part of the plot.

"Josie and Pussycats" eat at McDonald’s, drink Evian water, brush their teeth with Colgate, watch MTV and use dozens of other brand name products throughout the movie. Of course the movie is a satire about bands being used by industry to subliminally sell products, and yet the products are still in there.

A few years ago "The Truman Show" played with the same idea, but at least they had the decency to use mostly made-up products.

The new Britney Spears movie "Crossroads" has been called a "giant commercial" by one reviewer. You could scream "sell out!" but that would imply that she had some integrity in the first place.

The television show Survivor put contestants in the middle of nowhere, then sneaked ads for Doritos, Visa and Mountain Dew into the picture by putting their logos on a tablecloth.

The CBC soap Riverdale includes over 250 product placements. The executive producer defended the placements saying that they added an element of realism to the show. Which is funny because realism didn’t trouble the producers of that show when it came to the story lines, scripts, or acting. Realistically, this show was a bad idea and probably shouldn’t even have been made.

With the new digital technology, people are concerned that movie studios will go back into their archives and super-impose product placements in the background. On television, ads for Coca Cola and beer are already digitally super-imposed on soccer fields and rugby fields.

There is also an opportunity for regional advertising in movies. In a North American movie, some action might take place in front of a Pepsi machine. In the European release, that same machine might sell Fanta, Coke, or another product.

Everywhere the camera goes it seems to linger around a product logo of some kind. It does that because it’s paid to.

Compared to conventional advertising which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few 30 second spots, product placements can be won in motion pictures, television programs and even video games for a fraction of the price.

According to Adbusters, we are already subjected to as many as 5,000 advertisements each day. But while most adults are street-savvy enough to recognize a blatant product placement when they see one, kids are not as well equipped to smell the rat. That’s part of the reason why they’re targeted so often. The other reason is that as future consumers, it’s better for companies to start building brand loyalty at a young age.

It doesn’t just apply to junk food either, but to alcohol, cigarettes, cars, computers, clothing, anything you can buy or sell. You can find a placement in almost every movie, if you look hard enough.

Although Harry Potter drinks pumpkin juice and eats chocolate frogs, that didn’t stop Coke from being a part of the launch of the first movie.

Consumer groups are worried that product placements make it even harder for parents to promote good health among children, who already have to contend with pop and snack machines in school, and advertising on television, on the Web and in video games.

The move towards product placement comes at a time when a record number of North American children are overweight and obese. In Canada, almost one in two children are overweight, and one in five are obese, and according to Health Canada those numbers are still increasing.

Do product placements work?

According to Productivity Inc., a company that has placed products in shows like Roseanne, Home Improvement, Frasier, Friends, ER, and Chicago Hope, "product placement on television and in motion pictures is a highly effective, maximum exposure venue for products. As you know, product exposure of this caliber can generate considerable consumer interest, product credibility and customer awareness."

The Entertainment Resources and Marketing Association represents a number of advertising companies and film studios that either dabble or specialize in product placements.

"E.R.M.A.’s active members include many Fortune 500 companies and their agencies representing America’s most beloved and best known products. These brands benefit from their on-screen presence to millions of people in the theatrical, video and broadcast presentation of the feature films… In addition, these feature films offer unique promotional opportunities to brands for themed promotions, publicity and advertising…"

In other words, product placements are not incidental in movies, but calculated gestures involving the manufacturers, movie studios and advertising agencies.

The whole ethical question of these product placements will no doubt come to a head this summer with the release of a new animated movie called "FoodFight!"

Threshold Digital Research Labs, the company that is producing the movie, boasts that it "incorporates thousands of products and character icons from the familiar packages of products in a grocery store." The Commercial Alert group calls it a "movie-length commercial for children."

The plot is almost irrelevant. Basically supermarket products and their icons come to life in a supermarket and interact with one another. There’s some kind of detective story threading all the product placements together, and presumably some kind of food fighting.

Some of the characters in the movie include Chef Boyardee, Mr. Clean, Mrs. Butterworth, Twinkie the Kid, Charlie the Tuna, the Sugar Crips bear, the Alphabets wizard, Uncle Ben, the M&M’s guys, Mr. Pringle, the Tootsie Roll Owl, Chester Cheetah, Captain Crunch, and dozens of other recognizable characters.

When the movie debuts in Europe and Asia, some of the North American contents will be replaced with more recognizable regional products and icons.

"If you want your kids to nag you and throw tantrums for products, this is the movie for you," says Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert. "But we suspect most parents will think twice before spending their hard-earned money to have their children bombarded with two hours of ads."

You’d think so, but kids have a way of getting into the movies they want to see. And if they didn’t already have some kind of say over what groceries are in the house, then we probably wouldn’t have a problem with overweight children.

At least you have to give the producers of the movie credit for putting their product placements front and centre, rather than trying to work them into the background of every scene.

There’s nothing consumers can really do but grumble and accept these product placements as a fact of life in entertainment. As long as you’re aware that they’re there, and that almost nothing makes it onto the big screen by accident.