‘Back to the Future’ Day And The Argument For Product Placement

Product placement wasn’t new when the first Back to the Future film came out in 1985. ET’s famous Reese’s Pieces scene had lit up the silver screen three years earlier. And Coke? It had been appearing in films since its billboard cameo in 1916’s silent feature The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. No wonder P.S. Harrison — founder, editor, and publisher of the motion picture trade journal Harrison’s Reports — took such a hard stance against product placement back in the 1920s. It was common practice, and he didn’t like it.

The practice hasn’t slowed down one bit since then, and neither has criticism of it. The first time I really ever noticed blatant product placement was in the movie Two Weeks Notice when I was a sophomore in high school. Hugh Grant is, I don’t know, going to visit his ex-wife? She asks him if he wants anything and, well… I’ll let the clip speak for itself:

The comment makes no sense at all. It’s completely out of context, so awkward that it makes even a casual 16-year-old moviegoer roll her eyes. It doesn’t have any bearing on the plot, and it doesn’t make me crave Milk Duds at all. (Well, maybe it does. But I am a Milk Duds fiend. And I promise you, I’m not getting paid to write that.)

The Two Weeks Notice Milk Duds line isn’t any sort of a tragically awful outlier, either. These days, a quick YouTube search turns up hundreds of “Worst Product Placement in Film”-type lists. As far as I know, Grant’s hankering for chocolate-covered caramel candy doesn’t make it into any of the “Awful Product Placement” YouTube lists, but you know what often does? The Back to the Future film franchise.

Hey, what did Marty McFly ever do to you, YouTube list-makers?

Okay, so he did a lot, actually. Namely, the franchise included, over the course of the three films, references to Mattel, Toyota, Pizza Hut, Tab, Nike, 7-Eleven, Tabasco sauce, Black & Decker, The Weather Channel, AT&T, Calvin Klein, Western Union, Pepsi…and on, and on. (RIP, DeLorean Motor Company!) In spite of all the criticism, though, something about all that blatant product placement must have worked. Because now, as we’re rapidly approaching October 21, 2015, the day Marty McFly travels to in Back to the Future: Part II, we’re seeing an explosion of companies all wanting to get in on the celebration, from Pepsi’s new limited-edition Perfect bottles to Nike’s rumored self-lacing shoes to whatever Toyota has up its sleeves, and more. (Beer, anyone?)

All that hullabaloo has made me realize something: for the most part, I don’t mind product placement in films.

Okay, okay. Please don’t stone me for my opinion. Disagree, but reason it out. My first caveat is that I don’t mind product placement in films if it’s done well. Milk Duds example? Obviously a dud. (Ha. Ha.) That aside, product placement, when successful, can actually add a sort of emotional richness and depth to a film.

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s look at Back to the Future. In the clip below, Marty and his family are eating together pre-time travel. It’s a chaotic scene: Mr. McFly pours peanut brittle into a bowl for supper, Marty is drinking a Diet Pepsi, Mrs. McFly is alternating between drinking Bud Light and Popov vodka, a game of LIFE sits near the TV, a box of Idaho Spuds sits open on the kitchen counter, while an unlabeled bottle of ketchup that sure looks an awful lot like Heinz stands on the table.

The clip is riddled with obvious labels, and despite this—or possibly because of it—it works. The labels all contribute to one very tragic kitchen scene. When I’m watching it, I’m thinking about how much I want Marty to fix things—not about how ticked I am that his Diet Pepsi label is turned toward the camera.

The other thing about the scene is that everything blends in because it’s a convincing part of 1985 American life. Nothing has been pointed out specifically. Mrs. McFly isn’t telling her husband, “Boy, this Popov vodka really hits the spot tonight.” She just happens to be drinking it, and we just happen to be watching her as she does this.

Product placement also has the benefit of adding humor to a scene. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or awkward, or even really brand-positive. Just take a look at the scene below, shortly after Marty’s traveled back to 1955. Still confused about how things work in this old-timey world of his teenaged parents, Marty tries to order a drink at the soda fountain after the man behind the counter yells at him. What follows is an excellent play on the brand names Tab and Pepsi Free.

Again, I’m not thinking about how much I’d like to crack open a delicious, refreshing (and sugar-free!) drink. I’m giggling about the communication breakdown between 1955 and 1985. Maybe the writers of Back to the Future were under contract to put that reference in, but they did a good job of it, and I appreciate that. (And veering away from Back to the Future for a moment, the iconic Wayne’s World product placement sequence is a great example of another sort of humor I love in these cases. Because if you’re going to do it, why not have some fun with it?)

Finally, the product placement in Back to the Future, at least in Part II, gives us something to think about. Again with the Pepsi: in 1989 we watched Marty McFly struggle to order a Pepsi. What came out was an odd, wavy-shaped bottle. “Is this the future?” we asked ourselves. (Obviously, it’s not. Or, well, maybe it is now, what with the new release of Pepsi Perfect?) Or to point to another example from the same movie, there’s the 2015 kitchen scene, below.

Yes, Grandma is rehydrating a Pizza Hut pizza. Yes, it’s product placement. But isn’t it fun? Isn’t it inventive? It’s a tiny disc of a pizza that you pop into a Black & Decker (yes) rehydrator and wait for a few seconds while it burbles away. Ding! Out pops a perfect, steaming, hot pizza! No, rehydrated pizza is not a reality in this 2015. But back in 1989, it was a something great to think about. And, oh yeah. Pizza Hut and Black & Decker were both there to help out.

What I’m trying to say is, product placement can be interesting if it’s done properly — creating a sidecut of society. For me, it worked in all three of the Back to the Future films. It’s not something I actively think about when I’m watching the movies — which seems like a reasonable litmus test.