Skip Navigation

Product placement

A few weeks ago my estranged brother was in town, so we figured we’d go see a movie. OK, so he’s not really estranged. He does live a really long way away, and I do only see him a couple times a year, but he doesn’t really qualify for the ‘estranged’ label. That said, it’s fun to put qualifiers in front of relations.

Take “my paternal grandmother” for instance, or “my biological father”. Think of add-ons like “by marriage” and “twice removed”… they bring joy to all around them. A qualified relation is a relation with some history; it’s a relationship with a story. Reminds me of that classic piece of Dave Hughes material:

I went to school down in Warrnambool, I lived down there for a lot of years with my Mum and her partner… who’s my Dad. I still like to refer to him as Mum’s partner though. Just cuts me off a bit, y’know? Makes it her choice, not mine.

So anyway: the brother was in town and I was somehow convinced to go see Night Watch, a Russian ‘fantasy horror’ flick that apparently did very well in its home country. This doesn’t really say much… Priscilla, Queen of the Desert did very well in its home country too. Suffice to say Night Watch suffers from Hollywooditis, but was in all an adequate film nonetheless.

Besides the “dynamic subtitles” I was told would add to the drama (proving once and for all that flashy, animated text is more difficult to read than its regular, static half-uncle) I was mostly kept amused by the product placement; or rather, “brand management”.

The movie’s chief villain, Zavulon, plays a Playstation 2 whose controller has its Sony and Playstation logos skillfully obscured by a sticker.Anton, the movie’s protagonist, stands in front of an iMac whose Apple logo is covered with a Post-It note.

The Playstation is a fairly prominent prop in the film: Zavulon (apparent leader of the “Dark Others”) likes to rehearse his battles in a video game starring himself and his future opponent… playing through different strategies to assure victory when the real fight arrives. While I wait for Jack Thompson to pounce on this, you’ll note that the controller’s logos and graphics have been covered up, or outright removed. An unmodified PS2 controller features a prominent Sony logo and Playstation logo at its center, and the trademarked cross, circle, square, and triangle graphics on its buttons No Sony trademarks appear on screen while Zavulon plays his game.

I’m obviously not a well-rounded enough individual to understand how blanking out a few corporate logos reduces our ability to identify such an easily-recognizable products, but product placement has always been more a political arena than a legal one.

See, too, the iMac. The Apple logo on the back of the display (as well as the same on the front of the machine, shown in a later scene) is covered with a Post-It. A PowerBook in an even later scene sports a “City Light Company” (AKA the Night Watch) sticker over its glowing Apple logo.

The producers, clearly not having negotiated a pocket-lining agreement with Sony or Apple, don’t want to just give publicity away (nor do they want to endanger future negotiations with them or their competitors by giving them any “you did it for free last time!” ammunition), but this is pretty lame… with products like these, how can you really suppress the brand? Anyone can recognize a Playstation controller —with or without the logos— it’s a distinctive design, and all the stickers and Post-Its in the world aren’t going to change that.

Now consider the products whose advertising budgets did find their way into somebody’s bank account…

Svetlana, one of the female focuses of the film, stirs her Nescafé coffee in her red Nescafé mug.Gesser, Zavulon’s “Light” counterpart, has a nice, big, obvious cup of Nescafé Gold

Wowsers. That shit looks like it was pulled from a glossy magazine. The red mug, the black coffee, the self-conscious tapping of spoon on cup. I’m glad they didn’t have a deal with either of the aforementioned electronics vendors, I might just choke on the branding if it were this front-and-center.

Nokia scored a similar deal, given that their hardware is used exclusively by all phone-toting characters, but it doesn’t seem as overwrought. Maybe because we’re used to seeing phones, and the script calls for the use of phones, and phones are inevitably branded by their manufacturer, and the Matrix prepared us for a lot of Nokia exposure… but it just doesn’t seem as obvious as the Nescafé bit.

Anton’s Nokia sits on the bathroom sink as he prepares for work… the camera zooms in slowly on the phone’s display before a scene cut.Zavulon wields his Nokia like a sword for a few moments before speaking to one of his minions.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong.