Sold American

It's the reel thing: Coke and other brands in a funny montage of product placements

When James Dean flipped up the collar on his red jacket in Rebel Without a Cause, would-be mutineers everywhere went shopping for an identical look. Forty years later, Will Smith provided the same service for Ray-Ban in Men in Black. Men's clothing manufacturer McGregors' windfall was completely unexpected, but the sunglasses deal was calculated to the last decimal point.

In the movies' early years, the studios were obsessed with creating and promoting their stars. But as Pacific Film Archive curator Steve Seid makes clear in his 45-minute montage of clips, "Value-Added Cinema: A Product Placement Compendium," Hollywood now employs its valuable icons to hawk the most humdrum wares. From Adam Sandler's shameless pitching of Subway sandwiches in Happy Gilmore to Tom Hanks' idealized Federal Express middle manager in Cast Away, our most popular screen personalities have accepted -- nay, embraced -- the role of 20-foot-tall pitchman. (Hmm. Maybe it's not so surprising that the biggest stars are linked to the most egregious brand campaigns. Their enormous salaries have to be paid somehow.)

In any event, product placement has become so ingrained in American movies that it's almost transparent. Sometimes, though, the cameo is hilariously obtrusive -- as Bruce Willis and his partner share a kiss on the beach in Blind Date, the camera tracks until a Coke bottle has equal prominence in the frame -- or wackily appropriate, like Dennis Hopper's verbal attack on Heineken and salute to "Pabst Blue Ribbon" in Blue Velvet. More often, the array of soft drink, beer, and cigarette logos paraded before adolescent moviegoers is devoid of either visual interest or thematic allusion.

After Cast Away, who wouldn't want Tom 
Hanks as their FedEx man?
After Cast Away, who wouldn't want Tom Hanks as their FedEx man?

That's not the case with the "Value-Added Cinema" bill, which includes a couple of pithy Negativland videos that take aim at consumerism and Your Name Here, a highly amusing short spoof produced in the early '60s by a company that made promotional films. Say, shouldn't brand loyalty be part of the Patriot Act?

 
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