Forget Product Placement: Movies Should Sell Artistry

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 11, 2006

In the new film "Curious George," moviegoers will find their favorite storybook chimp cavorting with crates of Dole bananas. The man with the yellow hat races around in a Volkswagen. The U.S. Postal Service gets a cameo role via the mailman.

The product placement, while not awful or dangerous, makes this one of the first feature-length animated movies to allow surreptitious advertising aimed at children. For years, Walt Disney Co., Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation have avoided logo-laden products in cartoons, making that form of moviemaking virtually brand-free.

Now, Universal Pictures has stepped gingerly over the line between commerce and innocence. (The feat so impressed the advertising industry newsletter that it sent an alert to clients this week.) But when a Big Brand slips a subtle "buy me" message into entertainment for kids, the change ought to disturb consumers.

This shift calls for a reaction based on novel thinking. What if, instead of leaving the choices to dealmakers, Hollywood went proactive? What if moviemakers reached out for smart, innovative and beautiful products instead of the most profitable deal? By putting merit ahead of profit, they might turn the supposed Bad Guys into purveyors of Good Design.

My attention was piqued by the promise of an animated Volkswagen in the New York-like metropolis, where George's antics unroll. I immediately pictured a bright yellow New Beetle, one of the acknowledged icons of late 20th-century design.

Close, but no banana. It's a red pickup based on a Touareg concept vehicle.

"It doesn't take up the whole screen," Universal spokesman Paul Pflug assured by phone. "It's very subtle. You see the logo on the tailgate of the truck."

No design heavyweight there -- only a piece of Universal's "existing long-term multimillion-dollar relationship" to get VW products in front of viewers. Volkswagen looks at every Universal script, Pflug said.

The payoff would be bigger for kids, though, if designers were looking at those scripts, too. Why not encourage brand awareness based on terrific design? Let companies compete for the privilege of showcasing great products, especially to children, in films in which they would make sense.

A design board of professionals could advise and select by intrinsic merit, not marketing plan. The subliminal aim would be to train young eyes to know, and perhaps to appreciate, artistry in everyday products. With arts education across the country in sad decline, somebody's got to begin to reverse the slide into arts illiteracy. Hollywood is perfectly placed.

Besides, cartoon-perfect designs are hard not to find these days, starting with Apple's iPod. There's also the famous Eames "potato chip" chair, which would be a natural for animation, as would almost anything Karim Rashid designs. The wavy plastic Verner Panton chair could immediately supplant those clunky, four-legged wooden school chairs that no one sees anymore.

Over the past decade, savvy corporations have increasingly turned to design to give their products a competitive edge. Contests such as the Industrial Design Excellence Awards and the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Awards are identifying corporations that produce exceptional products, from Apple to Patagonia.

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