Lovemarks of the Post-Apocalypse: Updated

Posted on August 26, 2010

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There’s a funny bit in the mostly unfunny movie, Tropic Thunder, where one of the cast–a merchandising-mogul/rapper–trudging through a sixties-era Vietnam jungle, slakes his thirst by downing his own “Booty Sweat” cola. The joke is obvious–Hollywood is so blindly jacked into product placement, so disinterested in the impact that it has on narrative, that it would even place a yet to be invented product into a period film just to turn a dime.

Well, maybe the past is a stretch. But there has been a proliferation of product placement in the future–specifically dystopian and apocalyptic futures. I, Robot, for example, is infamous for its product placements—a 2002 era bottle of Dos Equis, and a “vintage” pair of 2002 Chuck Taylors, among many others. Laughable, but not too surprising, given that the film is a Will Smith blockbuster; you can expect producers to cram as much crap into as the feature can handle. But the practice has been showing up in much more serious films with pretensions of being meaningful commentaries on human progress and twenty-first century technological pitfalls.

Two recent visions of a future America in perpetual nuclear winter–The Road and The Book of Eli–contain some rather odd product placements. In The Road, Cormac Mcarthy’s dark vision of a dying post-nuclear war America, the protagonists are treated to the world’s last Coke—a first for “the boy”, who’s never tasted the wonder of carbonation. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I expected the trademark “Have a Coke and a Smile” logo to appear in the next frame. Later, the pair happen on a forgotten bunker full of Dole canned goods and Vitamin Water. That’s right, rather than stock up on water, the people who outfitted their post-apocalypse hide-away spent three or four times as much on little bottles of adult kool-aid. Interestingly, a great deal of the film’s plot revolves around the nomadic quest for food–and in an age where naturally occurring food has vanished–food is, by definition, that branded and packaged iconography of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Despite the fact that the film pretends to be a haunting tale of desolation and an investigation into the nature of humanity, you can’t help but be left… well, hungry. Indeed, in a film where smiles are necessarily few, the only joy is found in discovering branded food items from the past, such as Cheetohs and Spam–a lucky break for the studio, the food companies and the protagonists alike.

In the Book of Eli, where cats and other vermin can still be hunted for food (though cannibalism is a curiously similarly important plot device), it’s twentieth century gadgets that play a role. Eli is brought into the town that sets events in motion to recharge his Ipod; there are no longer any cellphone towers, but Motorola makes an appearance branded on a home-made megaphone.

And even when society hasn’t, arguably, fallen apart, modern brands in recognizable form appear in the most bizarre contexts in apocalyptic films. Perhaps in earlier periods, marketing gurus feared to tread in. Soylent Green could never have been a division of an existing food company, for example, nor could you buy a Dos Equis at the Carousel in Logan’s Run. Perhaps corporations were more interested in protecting their corporate logos, than simple visibility. I have no doubt, however, that modern remakes of those films would have exactly those kinds of product placement. Life-clock with Intel inside; Kraft’s Soylent Green, Bringing People Together in the Cycle of Life. In today’s missed- it-in-a-flash internet-ad world cacophony, visibility is legitimacy all by itself. What else can explain Chrysler’s bold foray into Vampire-Assistive Driving Devices in DayBreakers? Or Volkswagen, the preferred vehicle of “organ repossession agencies” in Repo Men. In both films, the vehicles appear curiously contemporary –in Daybreakers, Chrysler’s 2010 300 model is literally a co-star in the film. The respective corporations and filmmakers want you to associate these brands–effective accomplices in societal stratification and murder–with their current incarnations.

Does this mean that there has emerged an attendant disconnect between Brand and reputation? Between Lovemark and legitimacy? It’s probably over-simplifying to say that the effect of internet advertisement models, and the growth of public sophistication, and thus, immunity to branding strategies, has created a product placement free for all, where associations play second fiddle to simple visibility. But I’ll put it out there, anyway. That would explain why Chrysler doesn’t care if its 300 is driven by genocidal vampires or the hapless and ever-dwindling human race (who prefer unbranded beaters, RV’s and the like), and why Glaceau doesn’t mind that you associate Vitamin Water with soul-crushing desperation, so long as you associate it with something.

Is there an attendant loss in the American capacity to recognize reputation and positive associations? And wouldn’t that necessarily mean the converse, that brand-amortization is now negligible, that brands can get away with anything now, and not lose their market? A world where Gap can have as many sweatshops as it likes, and still be cool, as long as it flits before your eyes often enough on a backlit screen? Or BP can destroy the Gulf and still earn a respectable profit in the next quarter? That would put most dystopian futures to shame, right here in the present.

Update:

I wanted to note that Daybreakers stands out amongst these films as the most subversively critical of American consumer culture in the age of Peak Oil. In my view, Daybreakers’ majority vampirism is a stand in for consumerist capitalism, the minority “non-Vampire” humans a metaphor for the non-industrialized or newly industrialized world trying to survive in a resource environment controlled by Americans. The Vampires, even when faced with extinction because of their own rapacious consumer habits, use a newly discovered blood substitute, not as an alternative to consuming humans for food, but as a way to continue doing so. What’s more important to American/Vampires than survival is continuing their consumptive ways, for they can’t bear to think of life without it.  It’s actually quite, ironic, then, that half the film is a Chrysler commercial. Or maybe it’s just a dumb movie about vampires.

Update 2:

Apropos to what I wrote about BP, here’s a tidbit from a recent Wall Street Journal article concerning the company’s brand:

A good brand may be able to help gas sales to some degree, but the most important draw may be price, convenience and quality.

“It’s good for my car, and it makes it run better,” Charlotte Sargent, 45, told the AP who asked her about the possible name change at a gas station in Cincinnati. “It doesn’t matter to me whether they call it BP or something else.”

Of course. Set the Gulf on fire, or outfit cars so that genocidal preppy Vampires can drive in the daytime. What difference does it make?

Also, yesterday at the UC gym, I spotted three young men standing next to one another at assorted work out stations, each wearing the distinctive set of headphones which attach the Book of Eli’s protagonist to his pre-apocalypse Ipod. I think I may have missed the actual target, here. I was informed by one of the guys, that these are “Dr. Dre’s” something or other, which really are the focus of these product placement shots. I was going to post a screen-shot of the last scene, in which Eli’s young disciple takes to the road with his Ipod—it’s an odd, long pause over her placement of the headphones in her ear in a tight shot that looks exactly like an ad for the headphones. But why should I help them sell this future land-fill?…oh what the hell,here’s a clip. Tell me this doesn’t look like an ad for the headphones?

Posted in: Dystopia