The recent cinematic release of "You've Got Mail" has cultural Chicken Littles all aflutter. Starring the familiar Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan duo, the Warner Bros. production has come under attack for casting America Online in a supporting role. Critics say the Internet carrier gets far too much screen time as the medium through which the two leads meet and fall in love. It is, according to industry insiders, the largest product placement deal in silver screen history - reportedly worth between $3 million and $6 million - and even the film's trailers come festooned with AOL's signature smiley-face logo.
Three thumbs up, I say. Contrary to the squiggly wisdom that product placements in movies are a kind of Faustian bargain, there really isn't much to lose sleep over. Corporate cameos have been around for decades - at least since Katharine Hepburn dumped Gordon's Dry Gin overboard in "The African Queen" or when Joan Crawford, in "The Caretakers," came head-to-head with a Pepsi trade show display at a psychiatric-ward picnic.
While product placements have undoubtedly become more frequent in recent years, it simply reflects the spiraling costs of making a movie today.
There are three overarching arguments demonstrating that product placements are not the bogeymen of Tinseltown.
First, these products give movies an indelible imprint of realism. In real life, we eat, drink, wear, and drive brand-name products. It's part of our topography. What do we really want directors to do? Scratch out the logos? Last year's independent cause clbre, "Boogie Nights," was all the more immersing because it dripped with references to Fresca, 7-Up, and Chevy Corvette as it wound its way through the 1970s disco-and-polyester era. Similarly, it was wholly believable when, following a visit to the Kennedy White House, Tom Hanks's Forrest Gump declared: "One of the best things about meeting the president was you could drink all the Dr. Pepper you wanted." Characters become more three-dimensional when shown with products.
A second reason product placements are useful is that they often reinforce a film character's personality and history. Because products - like it or not - come encoded with a certain symbolism, they can provide a variety of nonverbal cues and near-universal reference points. When Matt Damon's character yaks about Dunkin' Donuts in "Good Will Hunting," he instantly earns his working-class credentials. When James Bond conspicuously consumes Rolex watches, Brioni suits, and BMW sedans, he immediately evokes the spirit of the gentleman spy who demanded only the very best.
A third reason product placements shine brightly is that they often give a movie an additional subtext, allowing moviegoers a chance to play spot-the-product. Actually, sometimes they provide a text, period. Oh, look, there's E.T. feasting on some Reese's Pieces. And there, that's Richard Gere in "American Gigolo" strutting his stuff in Giorgio Armani. And - oh, Taco Bell's the only restaurant left standing in the grisly world of "Demolition Man."
Some may disparage this product treasure-hunt mentality, but it's something nearly all of us respond to. Even during the Clinton-Lewinsky saga - the year's most popular movie, according to Neal Gabler, author of "Life: The Movie" - we chuckled at mention of Monica's blue Gap dress or at Clinton taking a swig from a Diet Coke can during his grand jury testimony.
Critics, such as the Center for the Study of Commercialism, argue that movies have become "dangerously" saturated with products and that, in the name of full disclosure, they ought to list products in their credits. That's a counterproductive proposal, considering that it would hand advertisers one more golden opportunity to see their names in lights. Perhaps a better suggestion would be a disclaimer at the beginning of every flick that reads: "This is just a movie."
Manufacturers obviously use product placement because they can in some cases boost sales, but there's nothing inherently venal about the practice. Some may argue that product placements upset artistic impression, but anyone who's going to a mainstream flick to find art in the first place may need to get their reality passport stamped. The bottom line is this: Anyone who goes out and buys a toothbrush just because he saw Sandra Bullock holding one just like it is a simpleton. So is anyone who signs up with AOL simply because he wants to find the gal of his dreams.
Products don't tarnish a movie; sometimes they enhance it.
*Shinan Govani is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in George magazine.