Product placement, the movie: how ‘pre-awareness’ has come to rule Hollywood

Recently, the company behind Jesus-themed TV show The Chosen described the Bible as ‘the biggest IP of all time.’ Blasphemy? Maybe. But it’s a logical framing of the Good Book in light of Hollywood’s current obsession with intellectual property. There’s more Lord of the Rings to come. Another stab at Harry Potter, this time for TV. Disney is turning all its old animations into live action and CGI, and superheroes born almost a century ago are still fighting crime in blockbusters today. There are dozens upon dozens of reboots, remakes, and reimaginings looming on the horizon.

It seems nothing’s worth watching unless you already know its name.

Just this week, the New Yorker ran a feature on all the ways the Mattel toy company is hoping to turn its IP into cinema. Hot Wheels, He-Man, Polly Pocket, and the View-Master are supposedly all coming soon, from names like Lena Dunham and JJ Abrams. One Mattel exec is quoted as saying, ‘In the world we’re living in, IP is king. Pre-awareness is so important.’

It’s almost impossible not to be aware of Greta Gerwig’s new Barbie movie. Gerwig has taken a playfully metatextual approach to the film, featuring Margot Robbie—as just one Barbie of a diverse selection of Barbies—who ventures into the real world outside her perfect pink community. The trailer claims the film is both aimed at those who love Barbie and those that hate her. You wouldn’t want to alienate any potential audience.

That same Mattel exec who said ‘IP is king’ is also quoted as saying ‘we don’t make commercials.’ This seems extremely disingenuous, considering a new Barbie based on Margot Robbie is already on the shelves. Perhaps a better claim would be that commercials can also be art.

We’ve always had stories that inspired toys (Star Wars) and toys that inspired stories (Transformers)—then, inevitably, Toy Story itself. Toys allow play, and there can be something enjoyable in watching filmmakers rummage through these IP toy boxes to tell their own stories using what’s inside—even if it is under strict brand management.

Two recent films, though, feel less like play and more like payola. It’s easy to imagine desperate studio executives looking around the room for inspiration. And what did they see? Sneakers and Cheetos.

Ben Affleck’s Air is the story of how the floundering Nike company managed to convince a young Michael Jordan to wear their shoes. Specifically, to wear shoes developed just for him—Air Jordans.

Punctuated throughout by Nike’s inspirational slogans, Air is a movie that would screen best at a corporate retreat. Director and star Ben Affleck has said there was no collusion with Nike. If true—as the Financial Review put it—‘Air must be the greatest marketing gift ever handed to a multinational corporation.’

We’re told of Jordan and the sneaker that will bear his name: ‘He doesn’t wear the shoe. He is the shoe. The shoe is him.’ In just the same way, the movie is an advertisement for the shoe, and the shoe is an advertisement for the movie. It’s a perfect synergy.

After endless nostalgic needle-drops and men making sweaty phone calls to each other, everyone wins in Air—meaning everyone makes money. And why not? It’s the kind of movie where a character is given a speech about realising Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ is a deeply depressing song, and then that same song is used over the triumphant final montage. Capitalism works. You just have to hustle.

That’s also the message of Eva Longoria’s dramedy Flamin’ Hot, whose underdog protagonist—Mexican American janitor Richard Montañez—comes up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and saves the Frito-Lay factory where he works from financial ruin. Having convinced the head of the company to take a chance on his product, Montañez is quickly elevated to the position of Director of Multicultural Marketing.

In the film, Montañez says that being Mexican ‘is a superpower’—but that power is only unlocked by hard work. This is the cure for every social ill in Flamin’ Hot. Crippling poverty? Work harder. Systemic racism? Harder still. The wildest fantasy in Flamin’ Hot is that this effort will always be rewarded.

But that’s not the only fantasy. An in-depth investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that Montañez did not, in fact, invent Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. In response, Frito-Lay released a statement:

We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market. That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard, but the facts do not support the urban legend.

The legend Montañez has given their product, however, is one of authenticity. It says that snack wasn’t created in a lab, but with wholesome ingredients, around a kitchen table, with an adorable child acting as a test subject. It might not be true, but it’s the perfect commercial for their snack food.

Just like Air, Flamin’ Hot is an elaborate gift to corporate marketing. The peculiar thing about these movies is that they weren’t paid for their product placement: instead they make their profits by appealing to our interest in the products themselves.

Does familiarity breed contempt, or just ‘pre-awareness’? Hollywood is betting heavily on the latter, and the audience excitement over Barbie suggests that they’re right. Few of us are immune to the dopamine hit that comes from recognising something from our pasts, especially childhood.

Scholar Ian Gordon says that the eighty-five-year-old Superman ‘demonstrates that aspects of our past can continually be reinvented and re-presented to us. … By tying popular memory to marketable figures, nostalgia has become a way of owning the past.’ This is true of sixty-four-year-old Barbie, too. You can’t own a full-size recreation of her Dream House, but thanks to an AirBnB promotion, you can now rent it.

Notoriously risk-averse, Hollywood will keep mining intellectual property until the box office tells it otherwise. However, unless it begins to invest in new stories, it runs the risk of levelling its forest without planting any trees. No amount of reinvention can power-up IP forever, leaving us with the narrative equivalent of photocopies of photocopies of photocopies. It’s enough to make you nostalgic for advertisements promoting the product the advertisement is about.


Image: a still from Flamin’ Hot

Martyn Pedler

Martyn Pedler is a PhD candidate at Swinburne University, writing an interdisciplinary thesis on superhero stories. You can read more of his fiction and criticism at

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