Even Santa Claus Smokes
Supposedly the first instances of paid product placement ever captured on film were delivered by the infamous Lumiere brothers in 1896 with brand names like Sunlight Soap and Evyan. These days, product placement happens everywhere from classic songs (Take Me Out to the Ball Game’s “Buy me some peanuts & Cracker Jack“) to Broadway plays, to video games, and everything else in between. In Hollywood films & television however, advertising has evolved into an art form.
Obviously we all know about product placement. That’s when filmmakers insert brand name products such as Coca-Cola bottles or new Chevrolet trucks directly into their film. More recently however, another term has been floating around the mediasphere, something else known as brand integration. Brand integration goes a little deeper than mere product placement, as the name would suggest. Ideally, brand integration happens at the script level and helps brand name products (or brandless ones like cigarettes) appear more carefully embedded or woven into the storyline or character’s behavior.
This brings up another term known as behavioral placement. Behavioral placement means simply weaving a product into an actor’s actual behavioral cues or subtle mannerisms. For unbranded tobacco products it might be nothing more than a character smoking a cigarette to calm down after a stressful situation, as we often see: a cigarette after sex, or perhaps leaving your custom-engraved Zippo lighter behind at the scene of a murder like in the Coens debut Blood Simple (1984).
For example, in the immortal comedy classic Ghostbusters (1984) directed by Ivan Reitman, three of the four Ghostbusters actually smoked cigarettes. The Ghostbusters were the good guys, by the way. I think actor Harold Ramis preferred Twinkies, but infamous actors Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson always relaxed after a job by smoking some cigarettes. Hey, it was a movie about fighting ghosts… Obviously real stressful shit so smoking cigarettes seemed completely believable when I was a kid. For all I know, Big Tobacco may have started the rumor that cigarettes actually relieve stress in the first place. “If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you want me to,” job applicant Ernie Hudson says in Ghostbusters.
Another immortal movie (which happens to feature alot of tasty music like a few of the Coen brothers’ choice films) was called The Blues Brothers (1980) starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. I remember seeing this movie when I was very very young and enjoying it back then. Guess what though? As good of role models as they were going on that “mission from god” and all, it seems that both Blues brothers and some of the band members were chainsmokers. One dude in the band even smoked a pipe. Some of these old movies even had tobacco company brand logos visible onscreen. Like I said, I was singing along to this movie before I was ten years old. If my mom or dad would have been smokers, I would have been reaching for a cigarette along with a cool hat and some sunglasses. The thing about tobacco advertising is that it doesn’t discriminate — it really isn’t limited to any age group or any class of people.
Anywhere you see a brand name product throughout history, there is a very likely chance that company paid someone to have it there. Up to and including brand name cigarettes.
Even a well regarded actor such as Sylvester Stallone once agreed to a half million dollar deal to exclusively smoke Brown & Williamson brand cigarettes in at least five of his films which at the time included Rhinestone Cowboy, Godfather III, Rambo, and Rocky IV. There really are some tangible records of Stallone receiving cash & prizes as part of this product placement deal with Brown & Williamson — you know, the usual stuff like an expensive watch, a sportscar, and a purebread horse. [Citations 1 2 3 ]
These days, Stallone and his buddy Schwarzanegger are rarely ever seen without big long cigars in their mouths so I would bet that someone’s still “compensating” them for it somehow. Even infamous comedian Dave Chappelle is rarely seen without a cigarette these days.
Personally, I never used to think that much about product placement in the films I watch. I guess I always assumed filmmakers got compensated for each brand name product displayed in the film, not for each individual instance of that particular product… But hey if you’re getting paid say $1,000 for each cigarette seen in your film and you have no moral hangups, then why wouldn’t you flood the movie with lots of them and make as much money as you can? A buck’s a buck, right? And displaying cigarettes is an easy and timeless way to pay the bills.
Hell, depending on the exact dollar amounts paid for cigarettes appearing onscreen, filmmakers like the Coen brothers might be turning a nice profit before their movies ever play to an audience. It is widely known that the superhero film Man of Steel (2013) had over 100 promotional partners which generated an appaling $160 MILLION to offset the $225 MILLION total movie budget. [Citation: Superman Reboot “Man of Steel” Snares $160M in Promotions ] So in reality, the filmmakers nearly did make a profit before the movie ever saw the silver screen.
Come to think, maybe the major movie studios never actually spend a dime producing Hollywood’s big budget films after all, it is always Big Tobacco and other brand names putting up the cash for our favorite flicks. I mean, think of all the Willy Wonka brand chocolate bars you saw in the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971) or the FedEx jets, FedEx packages, and FedEx shipping containers obviously inserted into Cast Away (2000) for example. And don’t forget other blatant attempts like Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991) and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004). These were some of the more unsubtle instances of product placement where brand names appeared far too obvious but were probably still somewhat successful at delivering the intended messages.
I guess we will always have to wonder if the artistic part was only secondary to advertising. The really sad part is when we go back and watch my personal favorites or other classic films now, it is so obvious that cigarettes have always been right there all along, just hiding in plain sight. Personally, I had never really focused on tobacco products until recently when they became impossible to ignore within the plots of certain movies. I think few people ever truly know to what degree products such as cigarettes are actually inserted into modern films and for what purpose. Are cigarettes shown to illustrate specific character traits or plot devices, or are they nothing more than instances of product placement? Personally, I have come to the overwhelming conclusion that nearly any cigarette in any film is nothing more than blatant product placement and very rarely does it ever actually fit the character or situation and therefore must be part of some secret but highly lucrative deal between filmmakers and tobacco companies.
In the 1970s through the late ’90s, tobacco marketers were eager to get their cigarettes in product placements on the big screen. “You used to be able to call up a company and say, I’m doing a movie and need cigarettes,” and they would send you a case,” veteran prop master Jeff Butcher, who has worked on films such as Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler and Click. “For the movie Mystery Train, I remember getting a giant case of Silk Cut cigarettes and we all smoked them.”
[ Citation: What Are Actors Actually Smoking In Movies? ]
In many ways, it is impossible for us as viewers to separate any paid product placement of tobacco from a director simply choosing to include it as a creative decision. For that reason, it is likely that tobacco use will never be completely banned in film or on television and therefore can never truly be censored. Heck, obviously it’s not a moral issue for many directors and filmmakers.
In reality, many major film studios claim to have an actual policy regarding tobacco depictions in films [ Citation: All six major movie companies have published individual policies addressing tobacco depictions ] which ensures that cigarettes appear only when there is a substantial reason for doing so, however very few major film studios seem to uphold this policy. A substantial reason for smoking a cigarette? Oh, they must mean all those times when you need to, say, light up a cigarette just so you can burn your attacker’s face in order to escape the evil clutches like in Romancing the Stone (1986) or say, when you stick a lit cigarette through the eye hole of a peeping tom like in Life of Crime (2014). You know, worthwhile tobacco appearances like that! Even I would argue those might be substantial reasons, but ultimately they still do the job of advertising tobacco to viewers.
And what about all the other times tobacco appears onscreen for no reason at all? I mean hey, who doesn’t like a cigarette after sex? Me, that’s who. As it turns out that cigarette after sex thing was likely invented by advertising agencies and simply perpetuated by Hollywood until it caught on as pop culture. Sort of like the giving out a cigar after a baby is born thing. It seems that highly determined product placement experts and brilliant film directors have been carrying out secret long term tobacco-related agendas like these for decades. You know… Hearts & minds, as it were.
I mean, at least filmmaker Quentin Tarantino created his own brand of cigarettes for his films called “Red Apples” which at least suggests a healthy alternative. Oh wait, actually some clever tobacco marketing executive probably suggested that Tarantino use the name “Red Apples” so that our tiny human pea brains would associate cigarettes with good health. As it turns out, Tarantino’s films are notoriously riddled with unnecessary tobacco use much like the Coen brothers.
The Coen brothers were actually “tapped” to film a couple of genuine tobacco commercials over in Europe. A tobacco company called Parisienne recruited the Coen brothers along with several other popular Hollywood directors to make some short “art films” for their cigarettes. Coens, please lend us your storytelling and filmmaking skills to advertise our tobacco products? My, what a familiar sounding scenario.
Whether they are getting paid or not, celebrities and mainstream filmmakers such as the Coen brothers often have the innate ability to bring a new level of focus to their favorite products — items that they themselves might be passionate about can easily find a way into their own films — but I have never seen a filmmaker display a relatively harmless product such as a can of Coca-Cola or a Chevy truck or any other brand name in the absurd quantities that the Coens insist on displaying individual cigarettes and other tobacco paraphernalia.
Obviously, filmmaker Kevin Smith loves comic book superheros and Quentin Tarantino loves gangsters, feet & kung-fu. To assume something about the Coens strictly by watching their films, you would think that cigarettes are their favorite objects in the whole wide world. It’s obvious by watching their movies that the Coen brothers think a cloud of rising cigarette smoke is way sexier than some naked woman titties. Watch the first ten minutes of nearly any Coen brother film and it won’t be hard to see where their passion lies.
The number of cigarettes, cigars, ashtrays, and lighters that appear in many of the Coen brothers’ films is seriously appalling when you actually stop and count them. Not only that, the Coens have also become absolute masters at presenting cigarettes and other tobacco products in a warm & toasty way that probably never stands out to mainstream audiences as product placement exactly. I believe one of the major reasons for this is that rarely do you ever see a cigarette or package by brand; and that is usually by design. Cigarettes shown in such a generic form inside any mainstream film is ultimately a win for each and every single one of the tobacco companies… Hence Big Tobacco (as a group) might have to shell out to the Coens for each and every tobacco incident & tobacco impression delivered.
Heck, maybe there is no initial negotiation at all between filmmakers & Big Tobacco before a film is actually completed. Maybe everyone involved plays by the infamous “proof is in the pudding” method. Dare I say, high level filmmakers like the Coens never make a dime from cigarettes before their movie is shown in theaters. Perhaps someone from Big Tobacco drops off a secret suitcase full of cash & prizes only after they’ve seen actual proof that the cigarettes made it into the new blockbuster film and to what degree. Once the new movie has begun generating tobacco impressions — converting viewers into lifelong smokers — only then do the Coens get their gigantic but highly secretive kickbacks through back channels. Pure speculation, I know! Just wait…
We as consumers are bombarded with thousands of different advertisements every single day in a wide variety of formats, so does our mind even recognize tobacco products as ads anymore, especially if they are brandless? Experts say this brandless advertising tactic works like a charm because the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement. Some people might argue that omitting brands in popular film detracts from the level of realism but I would argue that those people are just agents working on behalf of product placement. In some ways, omitting brand names altogether in movies might be totally empowering to the story and ultimately to the imagination of the viewers, but when it comes to cigarettes, that’s a different story.
In some ways, this unbranded advertising thing seems to be the only advertising option the tobacco companies have left. In America, legitimate tobacco advertisements have been officially outlawed almost everywhere except for like auto racing or some shit, so why wouldn’t Big Tobacco use mainstream feature films and effectively harness them as million dollar marketing vehicles for their product? The industry needs their tobacco products to be shown in a favorable light, mainly to acquire new smokers and replace the hundreds of thousands that die each year.
According to expert child psychologist Susan Linn, “tobacco companies need to replace the 440,000 who die each year, so it’s essential for business that they get children to start smoking” and “…today’s teenager is tomorrow’s regular customer…” [ Citation: Consuming Kids by Susan Linn, p157 & a memo by Phillip Morris, p169 ]
Tobacco industry internal memos don’t lie and the overall goal is quite clear. Big Tobacco has some deep deep pockets, so who’s really going to stop them from pumping millions of dollars worth of product placement into Hollywood movies, television shows, video games, Broadway plays, or anywhere else for that matter? Tobacco companies are some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet and from what I’ve read Big Tobacco also has the best psychologists working on their behalf, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to fathom where exactly their marketing efforts might be aimed at this stage in the game.
The tobacco industry recruits new smokers by associating its products with fun, excitement, sex, wealth, and power and as a means of expressing rebellion and independence. One of the ways it has found to promote these associations has been to encourage smoking in entertainment productions. Exposure to smoking in entertainment media is associated with increased smoking and favourable attitudes towards tobacco use among adolescents.
[ Citation: How Tobacco Built A Relationship With Hollywood ]
So what about all of the cigarettes appearing on television these days? There seem to be thousands upon thousands of unbranded cigarettes appearing on television carefully woven into programs much like they are in feature films. Television programs have even learned to weave items like cigarettes into character arcs much like the Coen brothers have. Some shows carefully and strategically plan out storylines around a main character who starts smoking, not from the beginning of the series, but often in later seasons after the show has gained a following and viewers have gotten to know the character extremely well.
Sadly, when I look back at my family’s favorite television shows from the 80s & 90s, it was actually Big Tobacco running the show all along. Different sitcoms all dealt with smoking in their own unique ways, and you can tell right away (if you’re looking) which shows pay the most attention to invisible tobacco overlords. Shows like Roseanne obviously weren’t beholden to tobacco in any way… they dealt with smoking in only a few select episodes and mostly taught good wholesome lessons for children. Conversely, a nice family show such as That 70s Show seemed to give a great big nod to cigarettes, even if it was only a few episodes. Nearly every character in That 70s Show had their moment enjoying a cigarette.
On the other hand, lovable shows like The Simpsons or King of the Hill actually feature a tobacco instance in nearly every single episode. That’s right! The fucking Simpsons animated series on Fox. Yeah. Every. Single. Episode. Sometimes it’s a warm and fuzzy reference, sometimes it’s a disgusting one. The series even had a familiar looking brand of cigarettes called Laramies which obviously mimmicks Marlboro’s red and white pyramid box design. I’m guessing Marlboro never once considered suing for copyright infringement.
Whether these tobacco instances were inserted into The Simpsons episodes as a joke, a tribute, or part of a larger product placement deal, well… in my opinion, that is beside the point. Either way, it was completely horrifying to learn that every single episode of The Simpsons was indeed honoring or paying tribute to tobacco in some way. But hey, don’t take my word for it!!! Go back and look at any Simpsons episode 1-100 and see if you don’t find some kind of funny or kitchy reference to tobacco. Whether it is funny, disgusting, or otherwise, the tobacco instances are present, plain and simple. Some of these cartoon references are so clever that you really don’t even notice them. As it turns out, maybe The Simpsons is not such a lovable show after all.
All of the classic television shows have shamelessly advertised tobacco products, in some form or another. To be on television, I think everyone had to pay their dues to Big Tobacco. Hell, wasn’t Chandler smoking for awhile on Friends? Friends on NBC was one of the biggest sitcoms of all times. Or who can forget that dark figure from The X-Files who had the stressful job of controlling the world… Whenever you saw him, he always smoked cigarettes which were often a fictional “Morley” brand depicted in a pack with a red and white pyramid design similar to some Marlboro packs.
Even the long-running Saturday Night Live seems to deliver a few instances of tobacco per episode these days. Not only that, we’re still being treated to never ending slew of television dramas such as Mad Men (2007-2015) which are completely littered with cigarettes from the beginning and woven into every episode. Ironically, some of the special edition DVD sets for Mad Men even came in a large metal silver case that actually looks like a Zippo lighter. At its core, I’m guessing Mad Men was probably just a hundred hour long advertisement for cigarettes. But hey, all that smoking was just authentic behavior for that particular setting & time period, right? Yeah, right.
Needless to say, television advertising has come a very long way in a short time. When I was growing up, a half hour long sitcom contained at most two or three commercial breaks. Now it feels like we spend more time watching long strings of commercials than the actual programs themselves. Feature films which play on television are often so chopped up that they are basically unwatchable. Hey kids, who wants to watch a two hour movie in only three short hours and sit through 39 commercial breaks?!
These days more people are also using DVRs to skip commercials so in turn specialized ad firms are likely scrambling to find new & better ways to integrate their client’s products into films & television programs directly. I bet you have probably already slowly started to notice these kinds of blatant ads creeping up in different places. Brand names & products such as cigarettes are being embedded at the script level; not only as background texture but directly into the hands, mouths, and phony conversations of our favorite show’s main characters. If this keeps up, tv networks will likely eliminate commercial breaks altogether and every product will be embedded, or integrated I should say, directly into each program.
Tobacco advertising has been a staple in the film industry since the beginning of Hollywood, so why not the television industry as well? Then again, I’m guessing that cigarettes have probably been resting comfortably inside our idiot boxes all along. I wonder if there has been a single year since the invention of television that tobacco products didn’t play a major role somewhere on tv… Sitcoms, the nightly news, talk shows, soap operas, movies of the week… Back then, there were actual commercials for flavor country. Shit, even Johnny Carson kept a wooden box full of cigarettes & a big fancy lighter on his desk nearly every night for over twenty years, and many considered Carson to be a god among men.
With a bit of research, I began to discover all sorts of interesting things about tobacco marketing and legitimate product placement in entertainment media such as film & television. After some light reading, I quickly realized that there are basically only a few simple ways for brand name products to legitimately appear within mainstream productions. Let’s review…
Product Placement in a Nutshell
1) After reviewing a script to identify where new products or franchise locations can be inserted, filmmakers approach the companies and ask: “Would you like to pay us to use your new Coca-Cola bottle, Chevy truck, or Starbucks store in our next movie?”
2) A company with a flashy new product asks the filmmakers to put that product into their upcoming movie. The company might say: “Hey put this shit in your movie, we’ll give you some money.” The filmmakers usually say yes even if the product is tobacco-related.
What isn’t acknowledged in the two examples above are the strong relationships already cemented between the major movie studios and specialized ad agencies. Their only job is to promote their clients’ products by working with filmmakers who will ultimately embed these products into our favorite mainstream movies. Above all, the goal of both ad agency & filmmaker is to make products such as cigarettes seem completely natural to the plot and therefore go somewhat unnoticed by viewers as being anything out of the ordinary. To me, the Coen brothers seem to be one of the foremost experts at this. Again, it would appear that this particular skill of embedding tobacco a certain way can get you very far in Hollywood.
A Study in Product Placement: The Hula-Hoop vs. Tobacco
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is the Coen brothers’ fifth feature film release. If you haven’t seen The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), a fun colorful toy known as the Hula-Hoop appears many times within the film as well as on the film’s poster. If you haven’t seen the movie, basically what happens is actor Tim Robbins becomes the head of a large corporation and he invents the Hula-Hoop himself… “You know, for kids!” You could even say the entire film revolves around Hula-Hoops. Get it? Hula-Hoop. Revolves. Yeah.
Anyways, the Hula-Hoop is obviously a very simple and innocent toy that mostly attracts children — even The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) shows a bunch of kids going apey over it. When school lets out a mob of children goes running down sidewalk only to bump into a three-foot tall Hula-Hooping savant. After witnessing only a few seconds of his Hula-Hooping magic, the kids all go completely apeshit and run over to the toystore to buy their own Hula-Hoops. Hudsucker is an extremely drab and grey film, so the colorful Hula-Hoop is always a sweet relief when it appears. Also keep in mind that The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) was the movie that had the highest number of tobacco incidents of any Coen brothers film by my careful count. Cigars, Cigarettes, and Hula-Hoops… What an interesting combination. Perhaps the crafty Coen brothers thought the Hula-Hoop would make a lovely little addition to their tobacco-ridden masterpiece, or more darkly it was just another diabolical way to attract some much younger viewers. With a much deeper study of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) I’m guessing that someone could find a correlation between the youthful messages related Hula-Hooping and the messages related to smoking.
Ultimately it’s not hard to see the glaring difference between an actor smoking a cigarette and one using a toy such as the Hula-Hoop as a so called prop or even as a character in a film. To children seeing both, it’s a psychological monolith that their brains will never fully understand, but you can be sure their tiny spongy brains are absorbing in some fashion or another. Children seeing a popular celebrity Hula-Hooping onscreen could never lead to a costly or unhealthy habit. Children seeing a celebrity smoking cigarettes onscreen plays a much bigger role in kids’ ultimate decision to start smoking — way more than anyone wants to acknowledge out in the open, least of all the tobacco companies. Mainly because they already know it, their own market research probably told them as much.