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AOL Gets Its Message Out in 'Mail'

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 17, 1998


Ever since E.T. was lured from hiding with some brand-name candy in "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" in 1982, marketers have been eagerly trying to insinuate their products in movies. The BMW roadster driven by James Bond, the Ray-Ban sunglasses sported by the stars of "Men in Black," the Dr Pepper swigged by Forrest Gump – all got there with the help of, and often payments from, the companies making the products.

Now movie product plugs are about to go to a new level. In Warner Bros.' big holiday release "You've Got Mail," you've got what may be the ultimate promotional bonanza: a product so integral to the movie that it is inseparable from it.

In this case, America Online, the popular online service, is practically a costar in the comedy about two Upper West Side yuppies (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) who strike up an anonymous romance via e-mail – AOL's e-mail, that is.

The movie, which opens nationwide tomorrow, features frequent shots of the AOL logo, its sign-on screen and its "instant messaging" template. There's also a cameo by the little, disembodied electronic voice – "Goodbye!" – familiar to AOL's 15 million users. "You've got mail," the Hanks character says at one point in the movie, echoing both the title and a copyrighted AOL phrase. "Those are very powerful words."

People in the multimillion-dollar business of placing products in movies call AOL's involvement in the movie a major marketing coup. "It's a perfect fit," said Norm Marshall, who heads a product-placement company in North Hollywood, Calif. "It has major stars and a warm and fuzzy story." Marshall called the movie "absolutely priceless" for the Dulles-based company.

AOL and Warner Bros. declined to describe details of their arrangement, but people involved with the film say director-writer Nora Ephron and AOL worked closely together. While no money changed hands, AOL was effectively a "partner" in the filmmaking, they said. Company executives reviewed Ephron's script and suggested changes to make the e-mail correspondence seem more realistic. The company even persuaded Ephron to change the film's original title from "You Have Mail" so that it matched the AOL phrase exactly.

"We really don't think of it as a promotion," said Wendy Goldberg, an AOL spokeswoman. "It's a love story, not a technology story."

The seamless blending of product and story is, of course, the whole point of product placements. By subtly weaving a product into a scene, marketers hope audiences will connect their brand with the glamorous stars or story they're seeing on the screen. It's a commercial of sorts – without the obvious hard sell of a commercial.

"It's an implied endorsement by a celebrity, and that's really valuable," says Ian McQueen of ISM Marketing, another product-placement firm. "It would be hard to get a Tom Hanks or a Meg Ryan to endorse your product [outright] at any price."

Pay-for-play arrangements have been a feature of Hollywood deal-making for some time. Marshall maintains that Ford Motor Co. and other early car companies paid filmmakers to use the Model T and Model A in films made during the silent era. Coca-Cola apparently was another pioneer; it permitted Mickey Rooney's character to fly a small plane into a Coke billboard in the 1963 film "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World."

But product placements didn't really come of age until the early 1980s, with "E.T." When M&M/Mars turned down director Steven Spielberg's request for permission to use its candy in the film, Spielberg turned to Reese's Pieces, owned by Mars rival Hershey Foods Corp. The result was a brief scene in which the candy was used. The film's worldwide popularity set off a sales boom for the product.

"Product placement was in its infancy then," said Mars spokeswoman Marlene Machut. "We turned them down because we had other projects going at the time. . . . In the long run, it has made very little difference to our brand."

The success of Reese's Pieces, however, prompted other companies to clamor for movie placements. ISM's McQueen estimates that hundreds of brand-name products – clothing, jewelry, cars, airlines, liquor, breakfast cereals, cigarettes and so on – now are placed in movies and TV shows each year (it's tougher to get placement on a TV show than in the movies, experts agree, because TV producers often are wary of alienating companies that buy commercials during their shows).

The arrangement is mutually beneficial for film producers and marketers, he said. Although a company might pay $70,000 or more for a straightforward placement, the deals are usually more complicated and more pricey than that these days. Often, product placements are part of a larger marketing tie-in, in which a company agrees to create an ad campaign, a sweepstakes or some other promotional campaign that complements the studio's own marketing efforts for the film. With movie production and marketing costs soaring, said Marshall, product placement and promotional deals are one way to offset expenses.

The only people who may not benefit from product placements may be movie patrons, argued Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University. "Marketers always make the argument that having actual brands in a movie makes the movie more realistic – that real people don't drink Brand X, they drink Coca-Cola," Miller said. "That's true, but in the real world, products aren't made to stand out as glowingly and deliciously as they are in movies. The movies idealize the product."

In other words, movies with product placements are by their nature "advertiser-friendly," which means that they won't be "gripping or realistic in any way," said Miller. Indeed, he added, such films faithfully reproduce the aesthetic atmosphere of a TV commercial.

As for AOL, it's not hard to see why the company participated in "You've Got Mail." No one gets stalked or harassed or kidnapped as a result of using e-mail – the usual way the news media (and some movies) have depicted the technology. Ephron – who, incidentally is an AOL subscriber – depicts the service as smooth, cool, a glamorous tool of glamorous people. And there's never a busy signal.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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