Product Placements: Straight, No Chaser

Having just seen the movie Young Adult (perhaps better described as a virtuoso Charlize Theron acting class pretending to be a movie) I’ve looked up some reviews and found this one by Roger Ebert. It’s a good review and rightly says that people will fail to get the film if they don’t realize it’s about alcoholism—and, as David Haglund has pointed out in Slate, mental illness, though as his commenters have pointed out, it’s hard to disentangle the cause and effect between that and advanced alcoholism.

In the course of that review, though, Ebert makes an observation that frankly seems pretty naive:

She [Mavis Gary, Theron’s character] drinks a lot of bourbon neat. I’ve noticed a trend in recent movies: Few characters have mixed drinks anymore. It’s always one or two fingers, or four or five, of straight booze in a glass.

Correction: the character does not drink a lot of “bourbon” neat. She drinks a lot of Maker’s Mark neat. She orders it by name at least once, and bottles of the stuff are clearly visible in other scenes where she doesn’t name it. The only other bourbon she ever drinks is, tellingly, a lovingly home-made variety that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t threaten Maker’s brand value—may even enhance it by comparison. What’s going on isn’t art. It’s product placement. I admit, and welcome, that the product placement is far less obvious, and therefore probably more effective, in Young Adult than it was in the (otherwise fantastic) movie The Business of Strangers, which might as well have been titled The Dewarsâ„¢ Business of Strangers. But basically, Theron drinks her Maker’s Mark straight to make the brand she orders more memorable. It would also undercut the brand value of an expensive whiskey to suggest that people might want to drink it mixed: I’ve never heard of anybody ordering a whiskey sour with Baker’s in it, and I pity anyone who would waste good Baker’s by doing so.

There’s of course been lots of agitation against cigarette product placement in films, and it’s agitation I mostly welcome—though health is not the only good thing in the world, and people should realize that in the case of low-budget indies the placement is sometimes all that makes a life-altering film possible. (No Marisa Tomei obtrusively interrupting a crucial scene to sell a guy “Marlboro Reds,” no In the Bedroom. And yes, if Stan Glantz is reading this he should feel free to pummel me, politely I hope, in comments.) In the current case, I think the objection is less strong. One could credibly say that movies make cigarettes seem both more popular and more glamorous than they would otherwise be. Young Adult hardly makes Maker’s Mark seem glamorous. It makes it seem the road to ruining your life.

In fact, that’s what makes me scratch my head. Perhaps because product placement works through repetition, the placement of liquor typically takes the form of showing it being drunk by people who drink way too much of it. Ebert notes that Mavis must basically be drunk in every scene, though she doesn’t always show it to the same degree. The amount that Stockard Channing swills (the word is deliberate: we’re talking about Dewar’s) in The Business of Strangers puts her in pretty much the same category. When she’s not working out early in the morning, she comes across, and is intended to come across, as someone looking to an amber-colored liquid to save her from a job and a life she can’t stand.

So why would liquor companies pay for this? Do they really think that the kind of educated, affluent people likely to form the audience for these movies will be so ignorant of liquor that their brand will benefit from the mere mention of its name, in spite of the negative associations it carries? (Is there anyone who might be likely to try Maker’s Mark who hasn’t already heard of it ad nauseam?) Is the main audience for these placements in fact alcoholics who are expected to miss the artistic point of the movie, i.e. who after watching the film won’t be turned off liquor but might be induced to try a new tipple? Or are the product placers just too stupid to see that the movies paint their product in an unflattering light—or, perhaps most likely, too culturally dead to even watch a challenging film all the way through? Finally, am I in fact naive to think that there are lots of people like me, who enjoy fine whiskeys occasionally and in moderation but would recoil at the thought of drinking several glasses’ full? For once in my life I’m baffled (though sober). Please feel free to enlighten me in comments.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.