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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014

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In Movies & TV Commentary

Forget Will Smith, the real star of "I, Robot" was this pair of Converse Chuck Taylors.

Draper would be proud: Five blatant moments of movie product placement


Product placement is nothing new at the movies. Every character now needs to have an Apple laptop or iPhone, and most action movies wouldn't be complete without a shot of their car's logo right before the big chase scene. It's just a reality of the business. Movies need extra money in order to help turn a profit and cover costs, and advertisers want their name or logo where people will see it.

But sometimes, it goes a bit too far. "The Internship," a buddy comedy that reteams former wedding crashers Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, comes out this weekend, and in case you haven't seen an ad yet (you lucky soul), it's basically about Google. Google, Google, Google. It's rather shameless, but not quite as shameless as these past subtlety-free product placement movie moments.

"I, Robot"

A couple of weeks ago, I talked a little bit about the Converse shoes in "I, Robot" that get so much glamorized screen time, I'm pretty sure they were able to earn their Screen Actors Guild membership card. There really is no understating the shameless product placement on display in Alex Proyas's 2004 summer action blockbuster.

In between all of the robot murder mystery solving and massive robot chase sequences, the film takes an early moment to show Will Smith's character pulling out a box of slick black Converse Chuck Taylors, lacing them up to the tune of Stevie Wonder's "Superstitious" and giving them the same look a proud father would give his newborn son. If that wasn't enough, there are two more scenes in which his shoes are referenced, one where his boss compliments his shoes and another in which he flat-out proclaims them to be "Converse All-Stars, vintage 2004." It's fair to say Converse got their money's worth.

"The Italian Job"

In the 2003 remake of "The Italian Job, directed by F. Gary Gray, our lovable crew of revenge-seeking, thieving misfits need a special kind of car to help them get away with their loot. They need something small, fast and preferably really cool. In the end, much like the 1969 original, they decide on Mini Coopers, which suddenly became the star of the film. It was pretty blatant product placement, but luckily, it fit with the movie's history and led to a really intense chase scene through the subway tunnels of Los Angeles. The movie itself was also a lot of fun, which makes the obvious product placement admittedly a bit easier to swallow.

Everyone remembers the Mini Coopers, but no one seems to remember another bit of film/advertiser synergy. A crucial part of their heist involves covering up a massive hole in the street with a billboard. And what's on that billboard? A big ol' Pepsi Blue logo. But while Mini Coopers experienced a significant post-"The Italian Job" bump in sales, Pepsi Blue was discontinued a year later. It could've been worse, though. It could've been a billboard for Crystal Pepsi.

"The Watch"

In case you thought the product placement in "The Internship" was simply a one-time thing for a Vince Vaughn movie, here's "The Watch, or as you could call it, "Costco: The Movie (Presented by Costco)." In the comedy flop from last summer, Ben Stiller plays a happy Costco manager who just loves his terrific job working at Costco and peddling the many terrific products Costco sells (and at such low prices!). Meanwhile, his pal Vince Vaughn yells about the wonders of "Alvin and the Chipmunks" – a fellow 20th Century Fox production – on a 3-D television, and scene stealer Richard Ayoade's character even notes the great savings one can find at Costco.

The alien invasion plot eventually takes the spotlight, but where does the epic finale take place? You guessed it: Costco. The joke is supposed to be how much people love something as seemingly mundane as Costco, but it's not quite funny enough to hide the transparent product placement. In case "The Watch" wasn't enough, Costco also played a role in last year's horror bore-fest "The Apparition," which no one saw (it didn't even make $5 million in its entire theatrical run). The lesson seems clear: The marketing department at Costco has terrible taste in movies.

"The Wizard"

Nintendo was everywhere back in the late '80s and early '90s. In case you need proof of their dominance over the video game market and childhoods everywhere, watch "The Wizard," a 1989 road trip family film that was far more interested in being a 100-minute ad for Nintendo products than a good movie. In fact, the glaring product placement is one of the only reasons anyone remembers "The Wizard."

Most of the film involves the video game prodigy Jimmy playing various video games and working his way to a massive video game tournament at Universal Studios, where Nintendo would offer a sneak peak at their upcoming big game, "Super Mario Bros. 3." Along the way, we meet Lucas, the movie's main villain who proves how awesome he is by playing with the Nintendo Power Glove for five minutes (which is five minutes more than anyone else could tolerate playing with that piece of notoriously defective junk).

After his bout with the Power Glove, Lucas tops off his glorified mid-movie ad by saying that, "he loves the Power Globe. It's so bad." This was that awkward time in history when bad meant good, but I agree, Lucas. It was very bad, and so was "The Wizard."

"The Island"

Michael Bay is like the patron saint of movie product placement. One of his gaudy, bloated blockbusters wouldn't be complete without a couple of dramatic twirls around a sweet Chevy or a dramatic sequence played out in front of a Mountain Dew-filled vending machine. Choosing merely one of his films to focus on seems like selling the polarizing director short. After all, the "Transformers" movies are basically chunks of product placement for the Hasbro toys filled with even more product placement for GM cars and the Xbox 360.

If I had to choose one, though, I'd pick 2005's "The Island." It's actually one of Bay's better movies, but the product placement is out of control. What brand of shoes do our futuristic clones wear? Why Puma of course! Also, apparently the only drink options in the future will be Budweiser and Aquafina. And what futuristic world would be complete without an Xbox logo dramatically positioned in the background and an MSN Search booth on every corner? The whole movie ends up playing like a big commercial for … well, pretty much everything.

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