Product as Character

The best product placement is the placement of a product in a film in a way that incorporates the product into the film so that it is central to the plot, and thus not obvious commercialism. Product placement firms are eager to place their clients when they can in such films, often getting in on the ground floor of the production- negotiating the product into the script. In “Castaway” and “You’ve Got Mail” products are so interwoven into the film that they become supporting characters. As well, by appearing alongside actors and actresses that are widely well received, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, the product becomes more credibly. Both Hanks and Ryan in a way are characters themselves, often playing such similar roles in their films (the good guy and the girl-next-door) that most viewers are coming into seeing a film and the connected product in relation to their past film experiences with Hanks and Ryan.

In “Castaway” it is easy to take for granted that the aptly named volleyball that becomes Hank’s best friend, Wilson , is an advertisement for Wilson volleyballs. By having their volleyball placed in the film, the Wilson Corporation has potentially affected the buying decisions of some consumers who can now connect a character-less object like a brand of volleyball to the Castaway “Wilson”. While this seems ridiculous, for sure during the scene when Hank’s cries over the loss of Wilson out on the ocean, there were viewers also touched by the loss of Wilson, the volleyball. The film exhibits what Michael Schudson, in his book Advertising, the Uneasy Persuasion, describes as “values put to work to sell goods”(221). The company then created a new line of volleyball’s with the characteristic “bloody” face of Wilson on the ball in attempts to tap into the emotions of the moviegoer looking for a new volleyball. Dale Buss writes in a Dec. 1998 Nation’s Business article, “Making Your Mark in Movies & T.V.” of the importance of such exposure for products that are difficult to differentiate from other similar products. The creation of the illusionary, abstract character of a brand can be just the thing that can send the impulse buyer to pickup the Wilson volleyball, connecting it to his memories of the film. The point is that it could have been Spalding.

Tom Hanks reappears, alongside Meg Ryan, in the cutesy film “You’ve Got Mail”, with a new friend, the cuddly Time Warner internet service American Online. The film confirms AOL as American’s favorite on-line provider. From the title of the movie, to the footage of the AOL welcoming page, AOL’s screen time does not lag far behind Hank or Ryan’s screen time. The actual title of the movie is recognizable to American Online’s 15 million users as the opening welcoming of “the AOL guy”. In the film, the words "You've Got Mail" become the most awaited words for either character as they anxiously carry on a relationship over the internet. AOL naturalizes itself as a useful medium of communication; it situates the internet, and specifically its IM instant messenger service and chat rooms as the perfect environment for meeting people. AOL is no longer a $19.95 a month service, but a friendly tool bringing people together. Less visibly, other technology products like IBM and Apple computers make appearances in the films, connecting themselves with the friendliness of computers, and satisfying advertising’s role as “a general reminder or reinforcer, not an urgent appeal to go out and buy” according to Schudson (211). While AOL’s marketers definitely worked closely with the film producers to creatively intertwine the service within the movie, the final message of the movie certainly offers secondary benefits to corporations like AOL that seems large and unfeeling. The small, independent bookshop that Meg Ryan’s character owns goes under after failing to compete with Tom Hank’s massive chain bookstore. In the end, thanks to AOL, their characters get together, and Ryan’s character receives a job at the friendly chain. American On-line benefits from the film’s messages of the virtues of big business.

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