Business

READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP, PEPSI

Toronto's Philip Hart pitches products for placement in movies and TV shows

KATHERINE MACKLEM August 12 2002
Business

READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP, PEPSI

Toronto's Philip Hart pitches products for placement in movies and TV shows

KATHERINE MACKLEM August 12 2002

READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP, PEPSI

Business

Toronto's Philip Hart pitches products for placement in movies and TV shows

KATHERINE MACKLEM

THE KNIFE GLISTENS menacingly. New blood pools along the edge of its long blade. A man wearing a mask clasps the knife tightly, his fist held high and knuckles white, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. He’s stalking the hallways of a sanatorium for the insane. Already, one person has been gruesomely beheaded; others have been fatally stabbed and you know there’s more to come. After all, it’s the recently released Halloween: Resurrection, the horror film starring Jamie Lee Curtis. Tension is rising, ominous music swells. There are screams. “Look!” says Philip Hart, in an urgent whisper from his seat in the audience. “Pepsi, right there!” Hart hates horror movies. Using a small notepad, he hides the screen from view at the scary parts. But he’s here on opening

day, counting the number of times the products he represents are shown. As founder and president of Toronto-based MMI Product Placement Inc., he says it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t like the genre—because a lot of other people do.

Product placement is a nascent but growing segment of the multi-milliondollar marketing industry. With less hype or hard sell than direct advertising, placing brand-name products inside television shows or movies gives them subtle exposure in so-called natural settings. There’s more product placement in movies than in TV, and more in the U.S. than Canada. In this country, there are two main operators, Hart’s MMI and Premier Entertainment Services Inc., also of Toronto.

In the U.S., there are dozens. Holly-

wood, product placement’s home base, is where the business is the most sophisticated. In Minority Report, this summer’s sci-fi movie staring Tom Cruise, director Steven Spielberg worked with an agency to create a “branded world”—and picked up about a quarter of the film’s $160 million budget from more than 15 brands, including Lexus, American Express and Gap. The James Bond franchise, one of the earliest product placers, continues to be among the more extreme: reportedly, Agent 007’s $360,000 Aston Martin Vanquish, from Ford, along with products from Revlon, Omega, British Airways, Visa and others, amount to deals and marketing support worth an estimated $160 million.

MMI and Premier each represent about 25 accounts. MMI’s Hart works on 180 movie and TV productions a year, and receives an annual retainer, ranging from $15,000 to $50,000, from his clients to pitch their products to set designers and prop masters. MMI is a small business: six people work in its cluttered warehouse office space. They read hundreds of scripts sent by the studios, spotting scenes where clients’ products would work. Or not. Like, a house party of underage drinkers is not where a brewer wants its beer. And a spectacular car crash due to failing brakes is not where an automaker wants its vehicle.

In Halloween: Resurrection, Tyra Banks, one of the world’s most popular models, plays a ditzy broad who in one close-up is speaking on her cellphone. Correction: her Ericsson cellphone, the brand name in crisp white letters along its edge, right beside Banks’s luscious, larger-than-life mouth. The name is crystal clear, Hart explains later, because he’s had a specially made label stuck on the phone. “The beauty of product placement is it gives that third-party, credible endorsement,” Hart says. “Nothing else offers that.”

For the creative types, the name of the game is authenticity—and a chance to cut costs. The Eleventh Hour, a new Alliance Atlantis series for CTV that will be in production this fall, is about the making of a TV current affairs program. Much of the drama unfolds in the editing room. Recently, Alliance struck a deal with Apple Computer Inc. to use its Macintosh editing equipment and software. “That saved us money,” says Eleventh Hour producer Brian Dennis. “Product placement also lends a large degree of realism to our sets. From the client’s point of view, they’ll get terrific visibility.” The trick, a producer like Dennis knows, is to avoid stepping over the fine line separating authenticity and advertising.

Global Television, going one step closer to that line, was the first broadcaster in Canada to introduce virtual product placement. During broadcasts of finished dramas or even of live NFL games, the network digitally inserts logs and billboards in such a seamless fashion that it looks as though they’ve been there all along. Traders, the hugely successful 1995-2000 series set in an investment

firm, was the first drama in Canada to feature electronic product placement. Global digitally inserted screen savers on the traders’ computers, banner ads in bus shelters, and sandwich boards on the sidewalk. Unlike traditional product placement, the broadcaster charges a fee, comparable to the cost of a 15-second commercial but variable according to how long the item is actually seen.

Part of the attraction of electronic placement, says Ken Johnson, who oversees Global’s TV advertising sales, is its flexibility. An advertiser can switch a new product into the spot when a show is in reruns—for instance, a movie billboard on a bus shelter can be updated for a current release. “It’s definitely breaking new ground,” Johnson says.

Placing ads and products inside TV dramas and sports events is partly a response to technological advances that make life more comfortable for the couch potato—

and less so for advertisers. From the advent of the remote control to the latest digital video recorders, avoiding TV commercials has, step by step, become easier. “It was always zipping, zapping, muting. Now, it’s called skipping,” Hart says of the ability of recorders to jump through the commercials. Product placement, he notes, gets around that.

The cynical view is that programs will be created solely as showcases for products, or worse, that advertising firms, in a new mega-convergence play, will take over the creative side of the business from broadcasters and producers. Already, there are harbingers. No Boundaries, a reality show sponsored by Ford, features a number of different Ford SUVs each week and shares its title with the automaker’s marketing campaign; advertising giant J. Walter Thompson was instrumental in bringing Ford together with the series’ Vancouverbased producer, Lions Gate Television. Hart, though, rejects the notion that advertisers will take over show business. “It’ll never work,” he says. “You can’t control the creative process.”

Until a movie is out, Hart never knows whether his products are on screen or on the editing room floor. In the latest Halloween flick, with its teenage demographic, Hart has done well for his clients, including Pepsi. Early into Halloween: Resurrection, a security guard at the sanatorium stands before a bank of video monitors showing the institution’s corridors. In the centre screen, a Pepsi vending machine is visible. Hart likes that, but he practically jumps out of his seat with glee a few moments later when the guard, investigating trouble, stops in front of the machine, with Pepsi’s round logo in full colour view for about six seconds. To make it even better, an adjacent vending machine is stacked with more of Hart’s client products: Fritos, Cracker Jack, Lay’s, Doritos—“at extreme close-up,” he points out.

On its first weekend, Halloween: Resurrection was the fourth-highest grossing movie in North America, earning almost $20 million at the box office and launching it into years of viewing by horror cultists. Hart estimates that with video rentals, about 1.5 million Canadians will see the movie: “It’s evergreen. It’s got life.” And that means an ever-growing livelihood for the product placement business. M