Turner Classic Movies Examines Vintage Product Placements

March Film Festival Looks at Deals Back to the 1930s

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LOS ANGELES -- Turner Classic Movies is making product placement in vintage Hollywood movies the theme of an unusual film festival that will run throughout March.
Cigar-smoking Paul Muni played Scarface in the original 1932 movie -- and Owl Cigars used him as the centerpiece of an ad campaign.


Roots of product placement

Airing Friday nights throughout the month, the festival explores the roots of product-placement practices with feature films dating as far back as the 1930s that include plugs for marketers such as Owl Cigars, Coca-Cola and Chesterfield cigarettes. Much more secretive than many of today's product integration deals, those of Hollywood's golden years were part of mutual behind-the-scenes back-scratching deals among producers, actors and studios.

The festival will showcase films such as the original 1932 Scarface, Father of the Bride (1950), Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Superman II (1980). Network executives said they were more interested in rooting out some of the lesser-known product-placement stories than in airing more obvious choices, like E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, or the Steve McQueen 1968 police drama Bullitt.

Behind-the-scenes knowledge

The Turner cable channel takes great pride in its behind-the-scenes knowledge of decades of Hollywood minutiae. The network doesn't usually tackle business-related topics in its film festivals, aside from box office blockbusters, but executives said they thought the time was right to examine product placement through the years.

"We look at movies as pieces of cultural history," said Charlie Tabesh, the channel's senior vice president of programming. "But there's also a strong commercial element that's always been part of Hollywood."

Marketing savvy audiences today seem to understand intuitively that many products end up in films and TV shows not by accident but by design. There's an underlying business reason that Chili Palmer will be driving a Cadillac in MGM's Be Cool, for instance, and Dr Pepper popped up in Sony's Spider-Man 2.

Audiences might not think the same thing about classics, Mr. Tabesh said, but filmmakers have always wanted help in promoting their work, and advertisers were willing to offer free products and advertising that boosted the movie. In exchange, their products rubbed shoulders with some of the most famous faces of the day.

$250,000 for 'Scarface' placement

Because several characters would be smoking cigars in the 1932 Scarface, the filmmakers auctioned the placement. Owl Cigars won by agreeing to give the movie $250,000 worth of advertising that prominently featured Paul Muni, one of the stars.

It also was no coincidence that Fred Astaire puffed away on Chesterfields in many of his movies, including You'll Never Get Rich, in which he danced while smoking a cigarette. Mr. Astaire was a longtime Chesterfield pitchman, and the marketer in turn pitched his movies to the public.

Research for the film festival came from Jay Newell, a former Turner executive who now is an assistant professor at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State. Mr. Newell, who studies mass media and marketing, said a good amount of product placement both then and now is opportunistic, done on a barter basis. But marketers have been paying to have their wares in films since the '20s.

Alfred Hitchcock didn't like the practice

He combed through production files to find examples that would work for the film festival. He found out, during the research, that legendary filmmakers like Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock weren't too keen on product placement deals. The latter director nixed a proposal to put North American Van Lines in The Birds even though it would've meant massive publicity for the movie on the sides of trucks across the country.

Mr. Newell also learned that some companies were more successful than others in influencing content and plots. DeBeers, for instance, made sure that its diamonds were portrayed as surprise gifts, which executives considered the most romantic positioning for the brand.

"They were always shown as the object of desire," Mr. Newell said. "It was brilliant."

Not all placements had a happy ending, he said. Philip Morris' Marlboro had extensive over-the-top placement in Superman II, including Lois Lane chain-smoking the brand, but the usage set off a firestorm of protest against cigarette companies.

Deep-pocketed advertisers

Though the marketplace was infinitely less crowded in decades past, Hollywood still faced some of the same issues as filmmakers do today, Mr. Newell said. They needed audiences, and they knew deep-pocketed advertisers could help deliver them.

Sticking with the business theme, TCM chose a product placement veteran to host the film festival and star in a series of interstitials that talk about the backstory of the particular flick and its product placement deals.

George Simkowski, president and founder of product-placement company Let's Go Hollywood, worked for several marketers in the 1960s and '70s, when studios contacted the brands directly and asked for props for their movies.

He was an early proponent and architect of back-end promotions, which were aimed at bringing the placements to life through retail programs, sweepstakes and events. Chicago-based Let's Go Hollywood counts Budget Rent-a-Car, Zenith televisions, Paul Mitchell hair-care products and Jim Beam whiskey among its clients.

Product placement is synonymous with marketing, he said. "If you can't do more business because of a placement, then don't do it," Mr. Simkowski said. "That's what I always tell my clients."
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