Shocking as it may seem, not everyone on Earth knows what product placement is! I know, right?! Actually, that’s not entirely true; people in modern society do know what it is, they just might know what it’s called. So, in the course of explaining our trade to others there is one consistent response we receive, “You mean like when someone drinks a coke on screen?” Then we have to explain that that’s correct but, even though we are a respected product placement agency and represent respected brands, we do not represent Coke. But when it comes to identifying the basics of product placement Coke is, as they say, “it.” So, as suggested in the last HERO blog, a history of product placement is imminent and, using Coke as the example, here it is.
First, a thank you to Jay Moye whose article, Coke Red on the Silver Screen: Exploring the Brand’s Role in Movies, provided the journalism for this article and Audrey Kupferberg, the film historian who actually tracked the brand’s appearances. While sharing a comprehensive list of Coke’s film and TV appearances would be prohibitively long for this blog, we can hit some interesting highlights.
Believe it or not, Coke’s cinematic cameos date back to the early 1900s. The accepted first on screen hit for the brand was the 1916 silent film, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. In the “cult hit” (assuming such a thing was possible in 1916), Douglas Fairbanks passes by a Coca-Cola billboard while driving on a California freeway. Interestingly, this was also an implied product placement for cocaine, because the soda wasn’t completely cocaine-free until 1929 (but there was VERY little of it in there by then). The brand didn’t actually make any brand integration deals until the ‘20s and ‘30s either because they didn’t need to or the idea hadn’t occurred to anyone yet.
Ted Ryan, Coke’s director of heritage communications confirms what product placement professionals have long understood; brands are placed on the screen because the real world has brands and if you want to recreate the real world, brands are necessary. That was obviously the logic when a Coca-Cola sign was visible as Jimmy Stewart ran down the street in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life. The holidays are coming; be sure to look for it. On a side note, HERO client emeritus FTD also enjoyed some screen time in the film.
In the Oscar-winning 1947 film Body and Soul (the first Academy Awards were handed out in 1929, in case you’re suddenly curious) you’ll see a candy store in New York’s Lower East Side dressed for ’20s or ’30s period. There are Coke signs in the windows and inside the store. It would have been impossible to present a realistic candy store without them.
But it hasn’t just been the classic offering up a Coke with your smile; obscure films like 1945’s Detour and 1934’s Heat Lightning featured the brand and no less French “new wave” film pioneer Jean-Luc Godard placed one into Jean Seberg’s hand as they sat in a Paris Café in 1959’s Breathless. The familiar contour of the bottle gives it away. Next classic art house turn for the brand was when a vending machine made a cameo in 1964’s Dr. Strangelove.
The brand became an inanimate lead character to rival Castaway’s Wilson when in 1980 a bottle fell from the sky to the wonderment of the film’s aboriginal human lead in Australian film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
If you read these blogs regularly, you know that this whole history of product placement actually started in the previous entry as we questioned the claim that ET’s Reese’s Pieces had the first product placement. Not only wasn’t it first, it wasn’t even the only branded exposure in ET! Coke was there as well.
Superman (the Christopher Reeve version from 1978, that is) crashed through a Coke billboard, Warren Beatty enjoying the refreshing beverage in Bonnie and Clyde, in the 1982 sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner a Coke billboard suggested that even in a futuristic dystopian world, Coca-Cola is everlasting.
So all-encompassing is Coke’s presence in our society and on our screens that in the 1960s, the company actually set up an office in Los Angeles to ensure the authenticity of all Coca-Cola film references. If a studio requested a vintage bottle or sign, for example, the Coke team in Hollywood would provide the items that matched the period and overall aesthetic of the movie.
So there you have a brief acting resume for what is believed to be the most placed product in film and TV history. Coca Cola may not be HERO client, but we do have to give them their props for being top of the pops.