With the next wave of blockbusters about to be released courtesy of the US summer holiday season, we’re sure to see more glorious examples of ‘branded entertainment’. An unusual moment got me thinking about this the other day.

Ever stumble upon a new fashion, song, or trend as a youngster only to be met with a surprised look from your parents who claimed ‘we had that 20 years ago’? Well, imagine my surprise when an atrocious example of product placement jumped out of INXS’s Live Baby Live! being played by our resident art director the other day. In what is otherwise a masterpiece of 90s rock footage, the drummer skilfully maintains the beat one-handed while taking a swig of beer from a bottle held in his other hand (awesome skill, many points), before placing it back down beside him and very noticeably reorienting it so as to make the label squarely face the camera (pathetic, automatic loss of points). Now it probably wasn’t ill-conceived – we know musicians and drinking are as synonymous a concept as vomiting and carrots – but it was very poorly executed, which is why it stood out. Most importantly though, I was surprised, given its 1991 vintage.*

While the idea of celebrities endorsing brands in a more direct sense is by no means a new one, the notion of product placement in film has really only come to the fore relatively recently. This can be evidenced by the fact that every time a new blockbuster is released, all my non-marketing friends think I’ll be interested in having a conversation about ‘how bad that product placement stuff is getting’.

However, a little research shows that product placement traces its history back almost as far as cinema and television themselves. Better yet, it appears that Jules Verne’s epic Around the World in Eighty Days writing contained product placements as transport and shipping companies lobbied to be included. Apparently, that was just the beginning of a long line of obvious and not-so-obvious examples. Perhaps ET’s ‘Reese’s Pieces’ scene was the first to set the bar for product placement so low that Michael Bay (The Island, Transformers) could repeatedly trip over it some 20 years later.

I guess the difference that has made it a talking point is that in the last 10 years it has gone too far. Certainly the best evidence of this (and my personal favourite, which doesn’t make it onto that list) is I Am Sam. The PP in this movie was so unashamed it would be comical if it were not so deplorable. Here was a film that contained such a tear-jerking performance by Sean Penn, combined with such a nauseating level of advertising, that I found myself for the first time wanting to both cry and throw up simultaneously.

Where will it go to from here? The problem is that movie budgets are blowing out, and PP is one easy way to both gain funding and simultaneously extend promotion of the film via co-operative marketing ventures. This would lead me to otherwise expect to see a marked increase in it over the coming years, except that we’re currently living in a climate where the marketing budget is ‘under review’ (that’s a euphemism for being decimated). The main problem with branded entertainment (that’s a euphemism for product placement – it makes you sound more educated) is that it is just that, a branding tool, so we may see it stagnate for a while. Of particular favour at the moment are advertising and sales tools that deliver a strong call to action and easily trackable results, so I say gone will be the multi-million dollar branding exercises like GM’s $US3m investment in Transformers (although, in their particular case, this may be because they currently can’t afford to replenish their office toilet paper supply, let alone fund that sort of expenditure). Yes, they’re in the second instalment of Transformers, but that was all set up pre-GFC.

Perhaps as a result of falling budgets, we’ll see the quality of movie effects decline to the stage where they’re all equivalent to the pre-release unfinished version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine which was circulated in pirate form over the internet recently. Then, as things recover, the level of product placement will become so bad that even good souls like myself will begin to consider that they’re entitled to pirate it because the ratio of ads to content outstrips free-to-air TV.

Lastly, there is one more option: agencies and marketing professionals can draw their own line on the sort of gratuitous, irrelevant, or otherwise unwelcome product placement behaviour that treats the audience like idiots. They can confine themselves to ‘natural fit’ placements before consumers vote with their feet against offending studios and brands. Or wait – if the placements are that subtle and we can’t tell, should we be more concerned about how subversive it’s become?

Wow, I must be tired. Excuse me for a moment as I nick off to grab a Red Bull – just what I need to clear my head before I consider the other side to this argument.

* Perhaps due in some part to the fact that prior to the new millennium I probably displayed more interest in my pushbike and whether or not I was gaining any more facial hair than I did in analysing branding exercises.