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The Branded Future: Brand-Placement Implications for Present Viewers and Future Narratives

by Barbara D. Ferguson

In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, set in the year 2053, the protagonist John Anderton is wrongly accused of murder and forced to flee his own law-enforcement colleagues. In a subway station where commuter crowds should offer anonymity, the advertisements lining every wall become dangers Anderton hadn’t considered. Floor-to-ceiling billboards for Lexus, American Express and Guinness scroll and flash with animated life, and, because retinal-scan identification has been integrated into marketing, the merest glance at an advertisement triggers a personalized appeal. As he enters the station, a woman’s voice assures him on behalf of Lexus, “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less travelled.”1 “John Anderton,” hails a genial voice a few hurried steps further, “you could use a Guinness right about now!” The faster Anderton moves through the corridor, the more his name resounds from all directions in a cacophony of goods and services offered.2 The film’s plot progresses amid a sea of branding, with Lexus receiving the most prominent screen-time and -space, but with Aquafina, Nokia, Bulgari, Kawasaki, the Fox channel and The Gap also heavily featured. Each time they appear, these brands are not selling themselves only to Anderton; the film’s viewers are likewise targeted through the usual product-placement methods, and in more subtle ways unique to films set beyond our present. This article intends to explore how representations of commercialized futures implicate their audiences. I argue from the premise that every such representation, in essence, “safeguards the future for a political/economic system” very close to our current model, 3 and simultaneously requires the audience to negotiate this appearance of present reality in the imagined future. In perpetuating the mechanisms of the current market climate, visibly branded speculative futures such as Minority Report operate beyond product placement to reinforce brand constancy and endurance, crowding out other potentialities.

As a literary genre, speculative fiction (SF) has long imagined an array of possible futures, optimistic or otherwise; when it transitions to film, the medium’s visual and aural dimensions offer further narrative richness for those who choose to engage.4 To immerse oneself in an onscreen world while retaining awareness of one’s physical reality requires a certain intellectual and affective balance which suggests that engaged audiences may, as some film theorists have posited, view cinema not so much as a “phenomenal object” but as a “phenomenological experience.”5 For instance, Vivian Sobchack has explored the repercussions of inserting documentary footage within fictional filmic narratives, noting how such a tactic, “rather than transparently authenticating the narrative’s fictional status… undermined and broke our engagement with the narrative’s irreality by repositing within it a more familiar realm of existence — namely, that realm we live as real.”6 While I believe her words might also apply to the effects of product placement within any fictive film, the disruptive power of the real within the irreal is especially great within future-set narratives, which alone have the opportunity to jettison any or all realities of the present. As Stephen Dougherty writes, “SF can help us to imagine new possibilities for the future, new ways of thinking about what our lives could be”, but more significant to my purpose is his added comment: “it can also convince us that things will stay the same”.7 In retaining the familiar marketplace references of today, future-set cinematic landscapes attempt to do exactly that.

Just as contemporary activists urge awareness of our ad-saturated social reality as symptomatic of a dangerously commodified culture, we should with the same concerns examine the commercial and narrative mechanisms at work within branded onscreen futures, and how they implicate us, their viewers.8 Many onscreen future worlds suggest that, whatever humanity’s developments in travel, architecture, or fashion, we will nonetheless retain a recognizable market economy in which corporations continue to advertise their wares through visual, public displays. On the surface, such scenes appear to be merely an extension of product placement practices elsewhere in the film industry. Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan claim brand and product placement is now “well-defined and well-integrated” across media platforms, as “[w]riters, directors, set designers, and other creative professionals often use brands as tools to communicate specific meanings to audiences. Within a movie or television show, brands often lend verisimilitude to a drama, help set its time period, or convey characters’ personality traits.”9 Although the practice began in the 1920s, brand placement’s unprecedented growth during the 1980s and ’90s resulted in a marketing tool with an estimated worth of $4.5 billion (US) as of 2005, generating in North America alone a network of “over 1,000 brand marketers and an industry of placement professionals.”10 Product placement and associated strategies are indisputably powerful economic forces within the film industry, significantly defraying the costs of film production.11 However, they do not operate unremarked: viewers are cognizant of the linkages between media and marketing, the commercial messages in film, and to some extent, the mechanisms behind them. In a 1999 film-viewing study organized into age-based focus groups, DeLorme and Reid found that younger focus groups (ages 18-21) most often described product placement as comforting and familiar.12 DeLorme and Reid’s older study participants (ages 35-48) were more appreciative of product use in period movies, where era-appropriate brands were perceived as a mark of careful crafting, and bygone products were welcomed with a sense of nostalgia.13 Considering such affective responses to historical films, and given any film audience’s immersion in what Sut Jhally calls the current “consumer culture” of life outside the cinema, 14 viewers may then interpret the appearance of those same brands in futuristic landscapes as somehow natural and inevitable, merely a continuation of a familiar timeline. While other elements of society may seem, onscreen, to have progressed in exciting ways, the “advancements” in advertising are primarily the modes of delivery: we might see large, glittering billboards, such as in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner; hovering ones as in Luc Besson’s 1997 The Fifth Element; or sleekly personalized ones as in Minority Report. Dougherty suggests such imaginings “signif[y the] victory of the known present over the unknown future.”15 Such a victory seems to imply, however, that viewers prefer to carry branded commercial products with them like security blankets into the uncertain days ahead.

If we accept for the moment Dougherty’s conception of a comforting, victorious present, we might understand why futuristic filmic landscapes without product placement are, for the most part, post-apocalyptic cities or remote outposts. In those imagined landscapes, such as recently seen in the Divergent and The Hunger Games film series, the absence of branded products is acceptable because the “collapse of civilization” apparently means the collapse of a familiar, free market system, or more accurately, a corporately-dominated one with powerful brand presence. A further reason for their lack is the media-marketing industry’s faith in the affective ties between brand and viewer, already proven in consumer studies to bridge the cinematic and extracinematic frames. Douglas Holt notes that brands are most effective when woven “into cultural epicenters”: rather than simply selling products, brands sell lifestyle, identity and emotional fulfillment.16 The marketing industry thus recognizes media brand placement as a “soft” tactic, termed “transformational” because it is designed to “portray the significance or meaning of product consumption” rather than pitching the features of the product itself.17 Even the momentary glimpse of a recognizable brand logo “talks to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy”.18 Here, then, is the conceptual incompatibility between modern branding and dystopic futures, an incompatibility so jarring that most of the stakeholders of the product-placement industry refuse even the risk of it: the irreconcilable difference between the cheerful lifestyles promised by brand identity, and the traumatized existence of characters onscreen. In grim, post-disaster landscapes such as The Hunger Games’ District 13 or The Road (2009), basic needs, not brand status, supersede all else. In the wake of environmental ruin and scarce resources, the vehicles of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) have been so stripped down, modified and re-imagined that, if a logo or distinctive shape remains discernible under the spikes and grime, associations with corporate identities are stretched to the utmost, if not broken outright.19 Advertising, if it existed in such future landscapes, would be forced to revert to the early forms of marketing Holt describes: brief, functional descriptions of the product and its necessity to life—and infomercials are hardly likely to boost the box office take.20 Instead, these grim, uncompromising landscapes are repeatedly presented as the futures of unbranded Earth.

If, instead of apocalypse, an alien world is the setting for an unbranded cinematic future, it may yet show a semi-familiar consumerism. Consider the original, iconic 1977 Star Wars cantina scene, which takes place within a visual landscape so populated with attention-stealing extra-terrestrials that the lack of corporate branding on walls, mugs, or clothing goes largely unnoticed. Although no one is shown paying for drinks, Han Solo does toss the bartender what is presumably some sort of currency chip in apology for “the mess” as he leaves.21 In other films, if a non-Earth community presents a “post-scarcity” model, wherein people appear to obtain goods without monetary transaction, closer examination reveals exceptions within that system. The myriad Star Trek productions are examples: aboard Federation starships and research stations, “replicator” technology instantly manufactures goods, evidently without effort or cost. Outside those institutionalized realms, however, the persistence of the market economy remains evident in private businesses and commercial centers. That said, the several Star Trek television series and the original set of movies (1970s – 1990s) present viewers with conspicuously brand-free landscapes; they are among the few onscreen futures where humans have apparently managed to maintain “civilization” without the corporate presences of our contemporary reality. Star Trek viewers’ decades-long reprieve from onscreen marketing may partly explain why the much-anticipated 2009 film reboot’s use of current brands struck a nerve with some, especially when a bar scene featured a character ordering two Budweiser Classics.22 Even though that scene was explicitly set on a future Earth rather than a starship or alien planet, the abrupt appearance of a recognizably branded product jarred uncomfortably against long-established narrative and visual practice.

Indignant fandom aside, the reference to Budweiser in the Star Trek scene exemplifies one of several risks corporate sponsors face when they insert themselves into any narrative of the future. Although the industry’s concerns lie primarily with the practical, financial risks of the film failing to recoup the cost of its production or even the cost of sponsorship, I argue that product placement more troublingly risks the collision of interpretive frames: that is, it interferes with the viewers’ imaginative separations between the onscreen world and their own off-screen experiences of daily life. Such interference has unpredictable consequences. Sobchack explains what happens as a viewing audience suddenly feels even a “nudge” of the real from within the film: “what has been our transparent and full engagement in an irreal fictional space is abruptly contextualized and ruptured by our latent extracinematic and extratextual knowledge.”23 Market researchers are already wary of situating a particular logo or brand too prominently within a shot or lingering too long on its packaging, knowing that these too-obvious nudges provoke audience indignation. DeLorme and Reid’s focus groups agreed “such ‘shameless plugs’ detracted from movie realism,” while Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan’s study advises that product placement must suit the “mood” of the media and not distract overmuch from the narrative, lest it “irritate[s] audiences by undermining the media story they seek to follow, thereby diminishing the affective and conative [i.e., purchase-intent] outcomes that sponsors seek.”24 Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan’s study is written for the advertising professional, but the authors’ words acknowledge, albeit subtly, the importance of cinematic immersion and the discontent roused from audiences at its disruption. Further, the study reminds its readers that a brand logo is effective because it is “socially visible, accessible, and easily understood in our consumer society.”25 Each recognition of a real-world logo onscreen, then, momentarily collapses the audience’s communally-shared, fantasy-based, cinematic world of the future into the individual’s market-shared, consumption-based, extracinematic world of the now. In that moment of collapse, the viewer is reminded that both inside and outside the speculative onscreen text, consumerism remains intact. For some, the reminder may be the security blanket posited earlier, of a comfortably familiar future; for others, it is an unwelcome intrusion of commodity culture. Either way, the viewer must decide in that moment—whether on a conscious or unconscious level—how to negotiate the interruption: is it deliberately ironic, or accidentally so? Is it relevant to the plot? Is it too jarring to overlook? All these decisions simultaneously implicate affect, as the viewer laughs, focuses attention, or is irritated. Complicity with onscreen marketing is not automatic or unthinking for the viewer, but instead demands complex reactions which ripple the waters of the viewer’s immersion in the narrative.

Attempting to avoid too many waves in those moments of disruption, product placement agencies work closely with studios to ‘match’ the product with the media content. As Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan conclude, seamlessly integrating the real-world brand with its onscreen user within a fictional storyline is essential to product placement success, no matter what the narrative timeframe.26 In fact, a well-suited match of product to character may cause a further blurring of fiction and reality: younger viewers in DeLorme and Reid’s study conflated narrative and real-world frames to comment that a character’s use of the brand registered as the star’s use of the brand, and if the star was perceived as a role model, viewers attached further significance to the brand: “they would ‘associate [the brand] with something that’s enviable’ and ‘aspired to have the same brand as the movie star’.”27 But how are such consumer aspirations satisfied by futuristic products not yet available? Minority Report prominently features a model-year 2053 Lexus coupe, which becomes what David Kirby calls a “diegetic prototype”: a product that does not yet exist in the real world, but which is demonstrated as normal, functional and valued within the cinematic text through a complex “combination of a visual rhetoric along with narrative integration”.28 The car is deeply entrenched in Spielberg’s film, both visually and audibly: having already seen and heard the coupe’s advertisement on the subway station walls, viewers then experience that model’s construction during a chase scene on the production line, and finally can admire its style as it speeds away with Anderton safely inside.29 Diegetic prototypes have elsewhere proven themselves useful in the furthering and funding of technological science portrayed in speculative fiction, as Kirby notes.30 But let us logically extend his idea, incorporating the already-established affective and cognative mechanisms of product placement: if such prototypes are blatantly branded with a recognizable real-world entity, and that entity has a positive brand identity, audiences are encouraged to feel a desire to own this currently un-ownable product. The onscreen branding thus simultaneously promotes interest in the company’s current product line and in the company’s potential future offerings, which of course necessitates said company’s continued existence. In the case of Minority Report, the perceived quality of Lexus as a brand, the vehicle’s unique design, and the prestige of it having been driven by actor Tom Cruise, all contributed to the film’s bare-bones Lexus prototype selling at auction for more than a hundred thousand US dollars (several times the asking price), eight years after the film’s release.31

Moreover, in an onscreen future, an apparently seamless match of brand with narrative elements suggests not only that the brand will exist in the imagined years ahead, but that it also will have maintained its current corporate image, presumably a positive one. Such corporate confidence is itself risky, given the audience’s awareness of the commercial mechanisms at work within the film and potential refusal to accept the featured match. During my own theatre experience of the Star Trek reboot, several audience members snickered audibly at the Budweiser order. The response seemed prompted by the brand name alone, suggesting skepticism either in its current quality or in the idea that the brand would survive into the year 2233.32 Granted, I was in a Canadian theatre; perhaps it was a geographically-specific reaction to a beer strongly associated with America. But even if that were the explanation, this single example illustrates how brand appearances may reveal an incompatibility between the complex texts of the real-world brand, real-world markets, and the speculative narrative on the screen. When that incompatibility is made evident, viewers are left “jarred by their contact in what emerges as an experienced (if not always intended) heterogeneity of representation”: the sudden juxtaposition of incongruent elements that requires an equally sudden effort of interpretation.33

Another risk in such cinematic futures trading is the unforeseeable disintegration of the real-world brand such that, when audiences re-watch a film years after its release, the logo appears as a relic, an anachronism the decoding of which distances the viewer even further from the filmic text. For instance, if the too-close-to-call “cola wars” of the 1980s had ended differently, the glittering Coca Cola billboard in Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner would appear to 2017 eyes as an enormous and bizarre fossil on its futuristic landscape.34 Given the rapid pace of marketplace change, technology companies especially must be aware of the precariousness of their existence when considering sponsorship. While Nokia—a name visible in every video-phone call made in 2002’s Minority Report—is still recognizable today, its market share has dwindled drastically since the advent of the iPhone and Android systems. In North America especially, the brand simply does not signify what it once did, and unless it recovers or reinvents, Minority Report audiences in years to come will devote ever-longer moments to decoding its relevance. Even for a long-historied company with a distinguished past, there is no guarantee its corporate future will be of equal length or esteem, no matter how much branded cinematic landscapes may attempt to assure viewers otherwise with familiar logos.

Some might argue that brand logos serve, for certain viewers, as comforting touchstones within an otherwise unfamiliar future-set narrative. This explanation seems weak, given that even the most imaginative onscreen futures provide recognizable elements: no matter how radically alien the world, audience members can, with minimal adjustments to conceptual constructs, quickly learn to distinguish a futuristic building from a vehicle from a person onscreen, all while simultaneously following the plot. Viewers familiar with the SF genre in particular are already adept at the imaginative work of decoding any onscreen world as a new permutation of largely familiar genre, narrative, and visual texts. Inserting a contemporary real-world logo disrupts that intellectual labor. And it is indeed labor, as Sobchack explores: “our engagement with and determination of film images as fictional or real may be experienced either preconsciously or consciously, idiosyncratically or conventionally, momentarily or for relatively sustained periods of time,” depending on our will to do so and the effectiveness of the onscreen world. As much as a viewer may immerse herself in a cinematic landscape, nonetheless “this engagement and determination depend always on the viewer’s existential knowledge of and social investments in the context of a lifeworld that exceeds and frames the text.”35 That “existential knowledge” can be held in abeyance or implicated at will, but an interruption of the irreal by the real risks ejecting the audience from the narrative: brand logos are recognized as marks of corporate ownership, belonging to the cultural landscapes within which they were created, not the speculative ones onscreen. To borrow Jhally’s metaphor, advertising knits itself out of the social fabric of its culture and back into that culture simultaneously, absorbing and fusing “a variety of symbolic practices and discourses, [appropriating] and distill[ing] from an unbounded range of cultural references.”36 In a speculative future lacking those myriad cultural references, a real-world logo is both mis-placed and mis-timed.

Bearing in mind how disruptive such practices are to the viewer’s immersion, consider again Minority Report as a highly-saturated and unusual example of a branded future world. Spielberg’s use of commercial products as plot-driving devices is a daring strategy not only for all the risks explored above, but also because such usage is vulnerable to resistance, particularly by that segment of the population already invested in anti-corporate, anti-brand movements. When the subway station’s personalized ads, and later a wall-sized Fox Channel airing of COPS with Anderton as the focus, blatantly threaten the freedom of the fugitive protagonist, audience members may perceive the product placements as both narratively and ideologically linked to the menace of ubiquitous commercialization. A certain irony then emerges from Spielberg’s vision: the swagger of the COPS theme song, its trumpeting of Anderton as fugitive, and its widespread broadcast exemplify an inescapable media presence, against which any attempts at evasion are futile. The potential for reading product placement counter-culturally, and for undermining the stability of interpretive frames, emphasize how such marketing in future landscapes endangers what some feel is “the sacredness of the viewing experience.” 37 Any onscreen element that intrudes into that speculative construct to remind audiences of current realities––particularly the hyper-commercial society many already find problematic––troubles both the narrative and the viewer.

Worth examining, then, is whether the disruptive branding effect also occurs within the relatively recent onscreen trend of fictitious corporate branding. These pseudo-brands initially emerged for practical reasons, when corporate sponsorship was unavailable or unaffordable. During the 1980s and ’90s, television in particular was notorious for the papering-over of beverage cans and pizza boxes with blatantly faked “labels” so no copyright was due, despite the derision this caused their audiences.38 With the proliferation of brand placement agencies across the entertainment industry, that genericizing practice has largely fallen out of favour; in big-budget Hollywood movie production it is increasingly rare. Yomi Braester relates the difficulty some foreign filmmakers have encountered when trying to negotiate media-marketing, especially filmmakers from countries such as China, with its young commercial film industry and widespread audience bias against Western product-placement habits. These filmmakers find the use of fictitious branding an effective alternative. Braester cites a handful of Chinese directors who created brands with visuals and names similar enough to actual brands to evoke them, but comedic enough to skewer them, so that for instance Coca Cola (Kekou kele, in China) becomes Crazy Cola (Kexiao kele) and the bottled water brand Wahaha becomes Lehaha.39 Filmmakers within North America generally have easier access to the sprawling media-marketing industry discussed earlier, but of course any filmmaker might for ideological reasons refuse corporate sponsorship. Indeed, avoiding brand placement may become more feasible now that crowdfunding and not-for-profit advocacy funding offer unprecedented opportunities for creative production without commercial compromise; if these continue, generic and fictitious branding may increasingly replace the logos on our screens.

Some future-set films, however, utilize a fictional brand primarily to leverage real-world concerns about the financial and political power of transnational corporations. In these futures, the fictitious corporation drives the narrative, frequently as the villain of the piece. In 2013’s post-apocalyptic film, Snowpiercer, this is literally true of Wilford, a megalomaniac whose eponymous brand is not only visible on every wall of his specially-made habitat train, but who also demands obedient reverence from the survivors of humanity aboard it.40 One interpretation of Scott’s iconic Blade Runner might position Tyrell Corporation in a similarly villainous role: its headquarters is a towering, dominant aspect of the landscape, its presence so pervasive that most of the secondary characters in the film are Tyrell employees or contractors. In this interpretation, Roy and his fellow fugitive replicants become products of a potent commercial entity lacking in social responsibility, and Roy’s interview with Tyrell exemplifies the clash of businesslike cost-benefit analysis against the less quantifiable valuation of life. Elsewhere, the Terminator franchise and I, Robot (2004) similarly present fictitious corporate entities (Cyberdyne and US Robots respectively) as responsible for the rise of homicidal machines, either for profit-driven motives or merely a lack of foresight. Cyberdyne’s fictitious product, Skynet, has become so iconic that other media productions (SF and otherwise) use it as a metonym for any menacing artificial intelligence system, spawning internet memes, newspaper headlines, and sitcom references in an unanticipated crossing of the fictional into the factual world.41 The multi-platform Resident Evil franchise features bio-weapons unleashed by the Umbrella Corporation, explicitly motivated by profit-driven capitalism. Explaining how the corporation sold its products to each side in several large-scale conflicts around the globe, an Umbrella representative emotionlessly adds, “The Umbrella Corporation built a new arms race. Only, this time, it was biological rather than nuclear. Highly profitable.”42 In all these narratives, however, the plot itself makes the corporate entity unwelcome: any character glimpsing its logo or its agents onscreen is triggered into resistance, most often as violent action against it. Consequently, akin to those focus group viewers who appreciated a product if the star did, audiences may adopt the heroes’ anti-brand prejudices. They cannot, however, enact resistance themselves outside the theatre, because the corporation exists only in the irreal world onscreen; while the affective bond of animosity has been narratively forged between viewer and “brand”, there is no corresponding consumer impulse. However, even that statement has already been complicated by film marketing. We now regularly see real-world commercial goods featuring the logos of these sinister fictitious companies. This provokes yet another negotiation of frames by the viewer, but crucially, this one leaves the integrity of the original narrative intact, demanding only a real-world wading through layers of irony, awareness and intertextual representation: does an Umbrella Corporation t-shirt align its wearer with the fictitious bio-weapons agency, those who fight against it, or just the Resident Evil franchise in general? When online retailers offer clothing with “Skynet” spelled out in the globally-recognized Google font and colors, there seems plenty of commentary to unpack, but it must begin with the realization that the irreal has collided once more with the real.

To add further complexity, multiple media platforms allow fictitious brands to gain new recognition in the digital age, such as with J.J. Abrams’ creation, Slush-O!. Having first appeared in an episode of Alias in October 2001, the brand now has its own corporate website which, while toying with the tropes of the Japanese pop culture industry, gives no indication of the brand’s fictitious nature.43 The site deepens a meta-narrative that has crisscrossed the director-producer’s film and television worlds. Notably, Abrams has never used the corporation as a plot device. It simply exists as a ubiquitous presence, a trademark of sorts for Abrams himself, and is immediately recognizable to his regular viewers.44 The ‘brand’ added three hundred years to its illusory lifespan in 2009, when the same character who asked for the Budweisers in the Abrams-directed Star Trek added a Slush-O! to her order. If Abrams fans chuckled as they spotted the director’s in-joke, the reaction differed from the Budweiser-prompted one a moment before. In Slush-O!’s case, the real-world and onscreen frames do not collapse into themselves, ejecting viewers from the story. Rather, the diegesis flexes momentarily, to allow a savvy viewer a conscious recognition of the meta-narrative behind the brand. Viewers not privy to Slush-O!’s long onscreen history, of course, merely register the name as fictitious. Regardless, the universe of the film’s speculative future, and its narrative’s internal coherence, remain intact in that moment. At present, fictional brands may therefore be adding to, rather than disrupting, viewers’ interpretive frames, although entertainment-marketing’s tendency to turn a fake brand into a real product will rapidly complicate that statement, as it has elsewhere. A qualitative study on fictitious brands in film would likely offer intriguing insights about viewer acceptance as these frames fluctuate. Or perhaps such a study would offer further proof of our immersion in consumer culture, which many would view as a cause for concern.

I have argued here that the appearance of recognizable brands and logos in future-set filmic narratives operate on levels more complex, and less recognized, than the familiar product-placement leveraging of consumer desire. A corporate logo is a powerful signifier, inextricable from present reality. Brand identities in our consumer culture have become so tied to affect and behaviour that their projection into a speculative future wrenches them from their time and place to become troubling disruptions, not just to the narrative but the viewer’s immersion in cinema as a phenomenological experience. As films of the future propose the potential for human society to survive—or even to be made better, because futurity so often promises progress—branded futures suggest that our market choices will likewise survive, and will remain as corporately-dominated as they are now. Future branding thus invades what Kirby calls fiction’s “open, ‘free’ space to put forward speculative conceptualizations,” and in doing so embeds a commercialized system “within a [future] narrative that treats these ideas as already actualized.”45 The viewer’s imagination should rightly rebel at the disjuncture of time and item, which too strongly suggests that the only sort of future imaginable outside of apocalyptic ruin is merely a re-iteration of the present. Let us ensure instead that the mechanisms of our commercial reality are not foreclosing our cultural future, even in our imaginings.

  1.  In fact, the subway station sequence begins as a full-screen, real-time Lexus advertisement, with the film’s urban setting abruptly replaced by a shirtless man on a desert road, with onscreen text spelling out “Pursuit of Perfection” and a sultry female voiceover intoning, “A road diverges in the desert.” The man onscreen raises a futuristic bow and looses an arrow toward a speeding Lexus. The camera follows the movement of the car until it disappears behind an unexpected metallic pillar, clearly not in the desert setting: the camera’s movement through what initially seems to be a narrative-disrupting ad has panned smoothly beyond it to reveal the billboard’s station-corridor milieu. The building’s entryway and background commuters are visible for a moment to re-set the scene before Anderton enters and the plot resumes.
  2. Minority Report, directed by Steven Spielberg (Century City, CA: Dreamworks Video, 2002), DVD.
  3. Stephen Dougherty, “The Dangerous Rays of the Future: Democracy, Media, Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies 40, no. 3 (November 2013): 511.
  4. As a genre label, speculative fiction (SF) is relatively recent, though it has been retroactively applied to classic works previously categorized as fantasy, science fiction, etc. SF seems the best description for the future-based narratives at the heart of my argument: any imagining of the future must necessarily be speculative, regardless of whether it is also ‘science fiction’, ‘urban fantasy’, ‘dystopic fiction’, or a combination of these.
  5. Vivian Carol Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (University of California Press, 2004), ProQuest Ebook Central ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcmu/detail.action?docID=224220.
  6. Sobchack,Carnal Thoughts, ch. 11. I find Sobchack’s explanation of the ‘irreal’ useful, particularly for SF: “The irreal is not contradictory to the real but, rather, contrary to it. Which is to say that the irreal is not judged against the real… instead, the real is ‘bracketed’ and put off to the side as a noncriterion of the work’s meaning, coherence, or plausibility” (ch. 11, fn. 1). Fans of SF might consider the irreal as a sort of alternate dimension, sharing some but not all traits of our own and existing autonomously, its narratives consistent with its internal cosmology and logic.
  7. Dougherty, “Dangerous Rays,” 511.
  8. While this argument may also apply to films produced internationally, my focus here is North American largely because it is my own experience, and also because North American (particularly Hollywood) film has become a globally acknowledged – and increasingly problematic – artistic and social influence.
  9. Siva K. Balasubramanian, James A. Karrh and Hemant Patwardhan, “Audience Response to Product Placements: An Integrative Framework and Future Research Agenda,” Journal of Advertising, 35, no. 3 (Fall, 2006): 115.
  10. Balasubramanian, Karrh, & Patwardhan, “Audience Response,” 116.
  11. Minority Report, for instance, gathered about $25 million in funding through various corporate placements—nearly a quarter of its $102 million production budget. (Simon King,“Media: Minority Report: An Expert’s View,” Campaign, 19 July 2002. http://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/media-minority-report-experts-view-product-placement-works-does-minority-report-benefit-brand/151376)
  12. Denise DeLorme and Leonard N. Reid, “Moviegoers’ Experiences and Interpretations of Brands in Films Revisisted,” Journal of Advertising, 28, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 82. Despite the age of the DeLorme and Reid study, their findings have since been replicated by others in the industry, as Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan indicate in their review of two decades’ worth of market research (2006).
  13. DeLorme & Reid, “Moviegoers’ Experiences,” 77.
  14. Sut Jhally, “Image Based Culture: Advertising and Popular Culture,” The World and I, Article 17591 (July 1990).  units.miamioh.edu/technologyandhumanities/SutJhally.pdf.
  15. Dougherty, “Dangerous Rays,” 517.
  16. Douglas B. Holt, “Why Do Brands Cause Trouble? A Dialectical Theory of Consumer Culture and Branding,” Journal of Consumer Research. 29, no. 1 (June 2002): 84.
  17. Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan, “Audience Response,” 127.
  18. Jhally, “Image Based,” 2.
  19. Although one could argue that Immortan Joe’s double-Cadillac “Gigahorse” vehicle still trades on Cadillac’s brand identity as a vehicle for the elite, its stripped interior, monster-truck wheels, engine modifications, and lack of the distinctive Cadillac hood ornament more suit its role as a menace to the protagonists than as traditional product placement.
  20. Holt, “Why Do,” 80.
  21. Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, directed by George Lucas (San Francisco: Lucasfilm, 1977).
  22. Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams (Santa Monica: Bad Robot Productions, 2009).
  23. Sobchack, Carnal Thoughts, ch. 11.
  24. DeLorme & Reid, “Moviegoers’ Experiences,” 78; Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan, “Audience Response,” 127.
  25. Balasubramanian, Kaarh & Patwardhan, “Audience Response,” 132.
  26. Balasubramanian, Kaarh & Patwardhan, “Audience Response,” 127.
  27. DeLorme & Reid, “Moviegoers’ Experiences,” 78.
  28. David Kirby, “The Future is Now: Diegetic Prototypes and the Role of Popular Films in Generating Real-world Technological Development,” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 1 (February 2010): 45
  29. Visual and auditory brand-naming illustrates what Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan describe as “dual-coding” advertising, seen as doubly effective within the industry: viewers may later recall either the visual or auditory mention of the brand to inform a later purchase (125).
  30. One famously anecdotal example is the original Star Trek “hypospray” now used in some medical centres. Kirby’s article discusses Minority Report’s “gestural interface” technology at length, relating how the film’s scientific consultant meticulously crafted it as a plausible potential device. The consultant has since been approached with numerous offers of corporate funding for development of a real-world product (Kirby 53).
  31. Hugo Gye, “Hollywood ‘Car of the Future’ Could be Yours for the Price of an Ordinary Hatchback,” The Daily Mail. (Mail Online), November 6, 2011. Also see “Lot 327: From the Steven Spielberg film Minority Report, 2004 Lexus Concept Car.” Lot listing & sales record. (n.d.) Bonhams Auction House.
  32. Balasubramanian, Kaarh and Patwardhan provide this definition for their advertising-industry audience: “Skepticism, a defense mechanism triggered when a message recipient is presented with information that strains credibility, involves the suspension of belief” (128). Again, note the authors’ gesture toward immersion in a narrative that must continue to function around brand placement.
  33. Sobchack, Carnal, ch. 11. Italics original.
  34. As I write this, pre-released images and trailers from the film’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049, promise a similarly advertising-filled future, with Coca Cola and others again visible.
  35. Sobchack, Carnal, ch. 11.
  36. Jhally, “Image Based Culture,” 3.
  37. DeLorme and Reid, “Moviegoers’ Experiences,” 82.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Yomi Braester, “Chinese Cinema in the Age of Advertisement: The Filmmaker as a Cultural Broker,” The China Quarterly 183: Culture in the Contemporary PRC (September 2005): 558.
  40. Notably, only the elite living in comfort at the front of the train praise the brand and the “Sacred Engine” that keeps them alive; the have-nots in the back of the train perceive Wilford as the source of their misery.
  41. Cf. Charli Carpenter, “The SkyNet Factor: Four Myths about Science Fiction and the Killer Robot Debate,” The Washington Post, 3 September 2014. Within this article about UN meetings on autonomous weaponry, the title phrase does not reappear, and neither does an explanation of SkyNet as a product, although the Terminator franchise is briefly referenced.
  42. Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W. S. Anderson (Munich: Constantin Film International, 2012).
  43. www.slusho.jp
  44. In keeping with its secretive development, the Abrams-produced movie Cloverfield (2008) gave away Slush-O!-logo t-shirts as viral marketing during Comic-Con 2007, with no additional clues as to plot or movie relation (Carroll, “Comic-Con”). The question of whether Abrams himself has become a brand in turn feeding the recognition of Slush-O! is, I think, too tangled to address here, but is emblematic of the ready acceptance of ‘branding’ as a complex phenomenon of modern life.
  45. Kirby, “The Future,” 66.

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