Saturday, 15 June 2013

I Loathe You Philip Morris

I just heard on a news report that the current Hollywood blockbuster; Man of Steel, has broken the record for the most money earned in a movie from product placement. This follows news last year that Heineken had paid the highest single fee for product placement in a movie to the makers of the James Bond thriller, Skyfall. The figures involved are reported as £110million and £28million respectively.

This is obviously a lot of money and for such an investment, the companies involved will be expecting significant returns. We must therefore assume, that product placement is a very powerful tool indeed. This says a lot about the powerful influence of the media in any form (product placement is not unique to Hollywood. The music and publishing industry are also prime targets for exploitation.)

A similar tactic used in advertising is for companies to supply their products free of charge to well known figures and celebrities. When the public see their idols wearing a particular item of branded clothing, they immediately covet that item too. What I have always found ridiculous, is that whereas the celebrity has been given the clothes for free, the member of the public who buys the branded clothing is effectively paying the fashion company to advertise its clothing for it.

When marketing our books, we all know how expensive advertising can be, but imagine if a marketing company approached you as an author and offered to pay you for the privilege of advertising your work! This is pretty much, how the fashion industry markets its products. The customers are paying to advertise on their behalf.

I can see parallels between the celebrities who are paid to wear particular clothes and the movie studios paid for product placement. I also see parallels between those fashion victims who pay to advertise clothing brands and a writer who tries to make their work realistic by mentioning certain products in their work without receiving any commission for it. You may argue that the writers are not paying the companies to promote their products, but the companies will still benefit nonetheless. These writers are unintentionally doing something for free that others are paid vast sums of money to do.

Of course, a lot of writers will use generic, not branded terms for products. A character will more often drink a “beer” than a specific brand. They will smoke a “cigarette” as opposed to naming the manufacturer of that cigarette. The thing is, especially in the case of cigarettes, this makes no difference. It is well known that tobacco firms flood YouTube (spot the unwitting product placement. Google pay me nothing for the exposure I am giving them here) with videos of trendy and attractive celebrities smoking. No brands are shown, but they do not need to be, they will all benefit anyway.

Now, although I am no fan of smoking, I do not hold any resentment towards those who do. I do however, despise the tobacco industry and all that it stands for. Rather than climbing onto a soapbox and preaching on the evils of the tobacco industry, I will simply add the following link to a report commissioned by Philip Morris (the world’s leading tobacco company) in 2001.
For those who do not wish to have to read the full document, the basic conclusion is that smoking can have a positive impact due to the savings made in pensions and healthcare from the early death rate among smokers:

“Public finance benefits from smoking indirectly, via mortality-related health care, pensions, and public housing costs savings.”

I should add that this report was in 2001 and the company was quick to offer an apology at that time, but I do still think that it clearly demonstrates the fact that the tobacco industry is, quite literally, evil.

I stated earlier that the inclusion of a product in a movie or book can still have a positive impact on sales even if it was included for artistic reasons and not a paid placement by any particular company. If a company expects increased sales every time somebody smokes in a movie or book, does that mean that I am indirectly advertising tobacco products when I feature a character who smokes?

You could say that it is simplest to not feature any products that you do not approve of. You could also use the opposing argument that it is important for writers to portray the world realistically and it is an unavoidable fact that a lot of people smoke. Personally, I would prefer to go with the first stance and not include smoking at all. The problem is that my first novel is full of instances of people smoking! In the context of the story, it was impossible for them not to. The book centres on a bunch of pot smokers and a drug deal with terrifying consequences. True, bad things tend to happen to the characters who smoke, but I still feel a bit shitty about including (therefore, possibly promoting) so vile a product.

The fact is that when I read stories such as the one about product placement in Man of Steel, it just makes me aware of a side to the industry that I do not usually give much thought to. As a writer, I think that I need to think more about how my work can impact upon and influence those who read it. Sure, they have a free will and I am not encouraging people to do anything that they would not otherwise, but the thought that I could, albeit indirectly, be benefitting the kind of large, immoral corporate industry that I truly despise, does bother me.

There is a lot more that I could say on this subject and it is a difficult topic to address. I have always been a member of the school of thought that life mirrors art, rather than the other way around. I think that the greatest art does not paint a picture of the world as it is, but how it could be, how it should be. When going over the final edits of my second novel, I noticed that not a single character smokes. Was this intentional? Consciously – no, subconsciously – maybe.

I am aware that I am probably now sounding a bit preachy (despite my best efforts not to). I will therefore, take this opportunity to say farewell. Besides, all of this writing has brought on a huge thirst and I need to go and pour myself another Heineken.

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