Article – Ad Hoc

[This article originally appeared in Premiere magazine.]

Ad Hock

Have you ever seen this commercial for Hormel chili?  Robert Redford cruises the aisles of a supermarket, shopping for dinner.  The camera zooms in on can of Hormel chili.  Redford grabs the can, pays for it at the check-out counter, and later, sitting beside Jane Fonda, he cooks it over a romantic campfire.  Never, you say? But you have, if you’ve seen The Electric Horseman.

It’s no accident that Clint Eastwood drinks Budweiser in Heartbreak Ridge, the Emilio Estevez snacks on Dunkin’; Donuts in Stakeout, that Sylvester Stallone encourages his son to eat Wheaties in Rocky III, or that Kevin Costner drives an Alfa Romeo in No Way Out.  This is the work of product placers, people who were rare ten years ago. Today their industry is worth $50 million.

Some manufacturers get products to films for nothing, while others can pay as much as $150,000.  Most companies pay $25,000 to $50,000 to have their products used in movies, often by stars who would never consider pitching the same items on television.  Yet a TV commercial — which typically runs $200,000 for a prime-time slot, to say nothing of production costs — never elicits anything like the response these placements get.  Sales of Ray-Ban sunglasses, for instance, nearly doubled after Tom Cruise wore a pair in Risky Business.

By the same token, movie producers can offset as much as $1 million of a film’s budget with product placements, depending on how many they include.  (The 1981 movie Hardly Working, directed by Jerry Lewis, is famous for being virtually wall-to-wall ads; product placers themselves cite it as an example of overkill.)

Because of the effectiveness of this onscreen advertising, product placers frequently engage in bidding battles over a particularly desirable spot.  One case in point: in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, eager stockbroker Charlie Sheen holds up a business magazine, featuring corporate raider Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and the line GEKKO THE GREAT on the cover, and refers to the magazine as “the Bible.”

In Stone’s script, Fortune was the business magazine earmarked for this praise.  But the studio, Twentieth Century Fox, was hardly inclined to give away such potentially valuable public relations for nothing.  So Fox sent the script to both Fortune and Forbes.

Fortune agreed to give a free page of advertising, worth $47,104, for the spot.

Forbes offered two pages of free advertising, worth $92,230.

Fortune upped its bid to two pages, worth $94,208.

“There was a stage where there was some frantic pitching going on,” says Gary Belis, spokesman for Fortune, which sent over the previous six covers of both magazines to show that Fortune uses individuals on its covers, while Forbes rarely does. “I pointed out that if they were trying to establish the Charlie Sheen character as a kid on the make, the word ‘fortune’ means a lot of money.  Forbes has no meaning as a word.”

Stone ultimately decided to go with Fortune (and its two pages of free ads), since that was his original intention.  Fortune then tried to capitalize further on its prize by suggesting that another cover be shown in the movie — one featuring Charlie Sheen after he has been arrested for insider trading and has implicated his mentor in the scheme.  According to Belis, Stone loved the idea and filmed a scene showing Martin Sheen (who plays Charlie’s father in Wall Street) reading the issue.  But the scene was cut, and the second issue of Fortune is visible only on a newsstand for a fleeting moment.

— Don Lipper