Picking Apples

The Art and Commerce of Product Placement

Product placement -- the practice by which companies effectively "loan" their products to filmmakers and studios in exchange for some free publicity in the movies -- is nothing new. The concept goes back decades, with such corporate heavy-hitters as Pepsi and Coca-Cola insinuating their brand-name products into everything from Teen Wolf to Midnight Cowboy and beyond. Sometimes, the placement is so glaringly obvious that it actually detracts from the forward momentum of the picture in question, as though the film you're watching had suddenly been halted to make way for a low-rent television commercial. When that happens -- and it happens rather frequently these days -- it can bring out the worst in both media, annoying audiences and serving at cross purposes to the placement's original intent. In the last year or so, however, I've noticed a new trend in Hollywood films and product placement: Apple computers seem to have taken over. From last year's Mission: Impossible (which should have been retitled "Three Cheers for Apple," what with the gargantuan marketing push the faltering computer company launched to coincide with the film's release) to the upcoming Batman & Robin (which promises to have more PowerBooks and Apple products on display than you can shake a Schwarzenegger at), Apple appears to have become, seemingly overnight, a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive world of onscreen product placement.

At a time when the once-unstoppable company is losing tremendous amounts of ground to its WinTel contemporaries (according to a recent National Public Radio report on the state of All Things Apple, the company has even begun to lose its dependable stranglehold over the semi-lucrative education market), it seems odd that PowerBooks, Apple desktop components, and even the Newton -- the much-maligned handheld personal assistant -- are making such headway in the Hollywood dream factory.

Susan Forlenza, manager of Apple Computer's Film and Television Placement and Promotion division at the venerable 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, sums up the phenomenon this way: "What we have done over the years is to establish very good relationships with the major studios. The studios have departments that they refer to as production resources departments and their job is to find resources for the production. They get the scripts and they send them out to any number of people -- Apple, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, everybody -- in the hopes that corporate America will put in products that therefore won't have to be purchased, in exchange for exposure. That's the way it works.

"Essentially, what they do is send a script to us, we then review the script and determine whether or not it's going to be a good fit. We determine whether or not we think the movie is going to do well and thereby gain us a lot of exposure for the product, and certain other criteria that go into that thinking. Once we choose a particular feature, we work with them to provide the product. This is something that is very instituted in the studio system. They have a process for doing this that they have used for many, many years that is a very well-oiled and excellent working process."

Dustin Hoffman, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Rene Russo stare deeply into a Mac -- and rescue the world from certain biological death -- in Outbreak

Despite its current financial difficulties, including layoffs, downsizing, and some embarrassing on-again, off-again product scheduling problems, Apple has long been considered by its competitors to be the one to beat. Unfortunately, it looks as though the beating is occurring steadily these days, even among longtime Macintosh users, a fanatically loyal breed of consumer if ever there were one. With this in mind, Apple has sought to increase their user base and name-recognition factor with the easiest and most accessible port of entry available to them: the movies.

A (very) partial list of recent films prominently featuring Apple products reads like a who's who of Tinseltown blockbusters: Independence Day (which featured Jeff Goldblum single-handedly hacking down the alien interlopers via his trusty PowerBook, something Forlenza assures me is "not possible in real life," not even for Apple), Courage Under Fire, Ransom, Disney's live-action reworking of 101 Dalmatians, Murder at 1600, Grosse Pointe Blank, Liar Liar, and Volcano, as well as lesser luminaries such as the Jean-Claude Van Damme actioner Double Team and the recent giant snake thriller Anaconda.

It's getting so you can't hardly sneeze in a crowded movie theatre without spattering some cool new Macintosh offshoot up on the screen, which of course raises the question: Is all of this doing Apple any good as far as sales go, or is it just cool for cool's sake alone?

According to Forlenza, Apple doesn't keep permanent records on how their product placement works to initiate consumer buying of the product.

"We don't have any formal research on that, per se. Anecdotally speaking, just last week I had a phone call from our customer relations department that said they had a customer on the line who wanted to know where they could buy the PowerBook that they saw in the movie The Saint. It was last year's model, so the customer relations person talked to them about this year's model instead, because obviously they take about a year to come out. We place whatever's current at the time, but then when the film actually is released, it may be last year's model.

"So that's an anecdotal piece. We at Apple have not done any formal research, however there has been research done on that [elsewhere]. For example, I believe it's Reese's Pieces that was in E.T., and they saw a 66% increase in sales after the product was seen in the film. The company Bausch & Lomb sold 18,000 Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses the month after Risky Business came out, and that was an absolute record for them. It is pretty clear that the consuming public does look up to celebrities and often seeks to emulate them. When you see a celebrity using or wearing a certain type of product, it does have a blessing inherent in its use: If it's okay for Tom Cruise, then it's probably gonna be good enough for me."

Tom Cruise hacks info in Mission: Impossible

But is it really good enough for everyone's favorite Scientologist, or, to put it bluntly, do Cruise & Company really give a tin whistle whether they're seen using Apple computers, as opposed to say, an old Wang wordcruncher?

"In the case of Mission: Impossible, Brian De Palma, Tom Cruise, and several other people on the production staff were incredible Mac fanatics. They wanted to see the Mac as the hero in that film. And that's something we very much push for."

Apple's foray into the world of film isn't limited strictly to the local multiplex -- many Apple products crop up week after week on various television programs, not the least of which is Fox's bright light, The X-Files. Aaron Spelling, well-known as a Mac loyalist, also populates his two most popular shows -- Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place -- with the occasional PowerBook, as do the producers of such long-running hits as Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Friends, and NYPD Blue.

One fascinating instance of non-Apple sanctioned product placement (perhaps "product displacement" might be a more accurate term in this situation) came during a third-season episode of Fox's The Simpsons, which showed schoolyard bully Nelson writing a message to "Beat up Martin" on his Apple Newton, only to have the faulty handwriting-recognition program translate the memo as "Eat up Martha." Haw-haaaw, indeed.

That viciously hilarious bit of prime-time satire aside, Apple has found itself in demand at the major Hollywood studios, if not always in the public marketplace.

According to Forlenza, "The reason for that is a couple of things: One, we are very aggressive about our marketing; we're much more aggressive than our competitors. In fact, our competitors may actively place products, but my experiences lead me to believe that they simply aren't as aggressive as we have been. We are able to really play on the fact that the creative community in Hollywood uses our products and is very fond of our products. Very often we will hear directors say, `No, it actually has to be an Apple because I use Apple.'

"Also, we want to see the product being featured, we don't want it to just be a computer in the background type of thing. That's always one of our chief concerns. It's very important to have a good cast and a cast that people are going to come see, because that means you're going to get the exposure for your product. When you have your PowerBook in the hands of someone like Tom Cruise it's very powerful. We want to make sure that the studio is going to be doing a significant amount of marketing behind the film, that they're going to be getting it out into the theatres, they're going to draw people's attention to the film and draw people into the theatres to see it."

Apple computers, apparently, carry with them an implied cachet of "coolness." That is to say, when we see the hero (and it is always, always the hero, never the villain who uses Apple products), he is instantly recognizable as Mr. Suave by virtue of his association with his Apple computer. Filmmakers understand this, and, in turn, give more slots to Apple to beef up their film's cool quotient.

Sandra Bullock in The Net

"In Forrest Gump," says Forlenza, "it was not a computer, but there was reference to our company name and our logo and that's because the producers were huge Apple fanatics.

"I come across this actually more often than not, so I would almost have to say all of the feature films we have worked on have specifically wanted to see Apple involved. Mission: Impossible is a good example of that, and Independence Day, to some extent, as well. I've often heard that a character using an Apple product says something about the character that's using an IBM, or a Compaq, or whatever, does not say. And what they feel it says, is that the character is maybe a little more hip, a little bit more creative, a little more edgy. Edgy in the sense of `cutting-edgy,' you know? Innovative, that kind of thing. That's often what people think of when they think of the Apple brand, and so creative people have said that when it goes into the hands of the actors and character, the character gains something from the interaction with that brand."

With such a palpable presence in so many films, you have to wonder, apart from the hope of increased sales and revenue brought in by the audience/consumer, what else does the company get out of all this placement? Well, surprisingly enough, they get the chance to tinker with the occasional script, adding more Apple-friendly scenes and making sure their product is portrayed in a healthy, productive light. Which brings us back to the notion of Heroes and their Apples.

"That's one of the things that we are very staunch about," says Forlenza. "The Mac cannot be used to cause harm or destruction, and we're very adamant about it being in the hands of the good guys and the `hero,' if you will. We can achieve that through the close relationships with the production, and you get that through, again, people on the set being Mac users as well."

She's not kidding. Both Mission: Impossible and the recent Val Kilmer vehicle The Saint featured extended, critical scenes depicting online battles between the forces of good and evil, with "good" exclusively using Macintosh PowerBooks and "evil relegated to employing some presumably faulty PC or IBM clone.

What all this means for Apple -- whether or not an increased presence at the local movie house can actually help to turn the fiscal tide -- is anyone's guess, even Apple's. Since little or no research has been done by the company to determine if all this screen time is doing them any good, no one is really sure. For their part, however, Apple continues to plow full steam ahead, tackling film projects with the same kind of entrepreneurial vigor that once had pundits hailing them as the only computer that mattered.

With piles of new projects and placements in major films in current and upcoming release (including this summer's high-profile Batman & Robin spectacle and John Woo's Face/Off with John Travolta -- our nation's other favorite Scientologist -- and Nicolas Cage, and the Thanksgiving thriller Jackal, starring Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, and Sidney Poitier), their market shares may not be rocketing skyward at the moment, but the tide may yet turn. One thing's for certain, though: The next time you plunk down $6.50 for a movie, keep your eyes open. You may see your film hero bash the stuffing out of the bad guys with his PowerBook instead of his fists.

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