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This is my old blog, which I no longer update. Feel free to browse around old posts and such, but the much more recent version of my ramblings are to be found at MarilynAnneCampbell.com

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Tom Hanks Brand of Entertainment

I once applied to work for a product placement company, as the notion of getting paid to read production-ready scripts quickly outweighed any problems I may have had with the nature of the job. I wasn’t hired, but recently I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about product placement when my own bank account isn’t a factor.

This began after I received notice through the Canadian Association for Cultural Studies listserv that a new website had launched called Brandhype.org. It was put together by a team headed by Matthew Soar, an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University. They’re building a searchable online database of product placement in movies and have book excerpts, a video and a discussion board as well. When I was touring around it initially I thought one of the most interesting things was a discussion on how the plot of ‘Castaway’ was hung on product placement. I haven’t seen ‘Castaway’, so that conversation got me thinking.

Then, a few days ago, there was news that Tom Hanks will be starring in a film called ‘How Starbucks Saved My Life’. This time, it’s right there in the title. So I went back to Brandhype to find that discussion and instead realized another Tom Hanks film, ‘You’ve Got Mail’, was covered in the book excerpt from Kembrew McLeod’s Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity. It would seem that Mr. Hanks is on the forefront of moving products from the easily visible background to the unavoidable thru line.

The strange thing is, even after reading much of Soar’s website and other sources, I’m not upset by any of this. In fact, while I’m not planning on seeing ‘Starbucks Saves’, I think it’s better to be upfront about the inclusion of products. I’d rather see a film blatantly set in a Starbucks – perhaps even giving an inside look into what it would really be like to work at a Starbucks – than to have characters in some other movie drinking their coffees with the cup logo turned conspicuously outward.

There’s a Canadian play by Josh MacDonald called ‘Halo’ in which an image of Jesus appears on the side of a Tim Horton’s coffee shop. I’ve never seen it performed but it’s a fantastic read, and I didn’t have any problem with Tim Horton’s sitting in as a sort of character. Maybe that’s because I’m confident the corporation didn’t pay for that privilege, but I think mostly it’s because it was natural and fitting and didn’t feel like an ad.

I’m not suggesting a Hollywood film starring Tom Hanks, featuring Starbucks, and based on a book by a non-fiction ‘how to succeed’ writer will be anything like the art of an excellent play, nor do I expect it will be anywhere near as good. But I can’t find too much fault with the existence of real companies in fiction when everyone is upfront about it. Much the same way I don’t have a problem with humble web writers signing up for things like, oh, say, Google Adsense.

P.S. I just reread my last paragraph and should clarify - I'm not expecting the movie to be a great work, but I also recognize it may well be. I like a lot of Tom Hanks movies, and a lot of "Hollywood" movies. So, we shall see what we shall see, whenever they actually make the thing.

Quick Links:
‘How Starbucks Saved My Life’ – Reuters Article
Josh MacDonald’s ‘Halo’ on TalonBooks.com

Get In-Depth:
Canadian Association for Cultural Studies

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