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February 10, 2011

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Product placement: Good, bad and ugly

THERE'S a place for everything, but a branded anti-diarrhea medicine can upset the scene in a crime thriller and a brand of life insurance can cheapen an emotional disaster flick. Xu Wei looks at placements, crass to cunning.

The Chinese film industry is a late bloomer in product placement but it's catching up fast and some say it's gone too far in exploiting the hidden, and not so hidden persuaders. New regulations are on the way and China Central Television has banned product placement from this year's annual Chinese Lunar New Year's Eve gala.

Significant product placement in films dates back to "ET" (1982) when Stephen Spielberg's extra-terrestrial kept asking for his favorite Reese's Pieces chocolate and peanut butter candy. Sales soared and the possibilities of product placement seemed endless; it marked a new era of advertising and consumer manipulation.

Placement has become very sophisticated and ingenious in Hollywood - what could be more natural than for 007 to drive an Aston Martin? But consumers' rights groups are angry and some placement deals are negotiated before scripts are even written, so the script is then written to incorporate the product or service, raising major ethics issues.

It's just getting started in China, where film and TV are a brave new world for all kinds of advertising and consumerism, and it tends to be overt and heavy-handed.

In crime thriller "Windblast" (2010), two hired assassins walk out into the desert. Suddenly, one clutches his stomach and groans - there's an agonizing call of nature. His considerate co-killer abruptly produces a bottle of anti-diarrheal tablets, declaring, "This is the best cure."

Close-up of the bottle, a common commercial preparation.

Director Gao Qunshu says he was very reluctant to use the anti-diarrhea medicine in the desert scene with the assassins, but it was the producer's decision. He suggested the audience consider the blatant placement "a short, comic break."

In Feng Xiaogang's disaster blockbuster "Aftershock" (2010) about the devastating 1976 earthquake in Tangshan of north China's Hebei Province (240,000 people perished), one of the survivors years later runs a life insurance business, and when asked which brand he recommends, he promotes a national brand. The film is laced with placements for banks, cars, batteries, cell phones and other items.

Many fans are annoyed at having products hurled at them from the screen and critics are critical when blatant advertisement gets in the way of the plot and mars the scenes. Children's and consumer rights advocates demand strict regulation, noting that viewers are easily manipulated and there are no guarantees that products or services are good or that stars know anything about the products they endorse.

Producers love placements, however, and directors of small and medium-budget films say placement makes it possible for them to make their film in the first place. China is in dire need of good non-blockbusters but financing is hard to come by.

Except for big-name directors, producers have the final say on placement. The better directors take care the placement isn't jarring and incongruous.

"You just can't escape it," says moviegoer Jeffrey Qiu. "I have seen numerous products obviously displayed in the background or foreground. Sometimes it's very abrupt and awkward and conflicts with the plot."

There's not much fans who don't like it can do, except walk out.

The State Administration for Industry and Commerce plans to draft legislation to protect interests of the audience. The new "Advertising Law" is expected to severely restrict or ban product placement on news and children's programs.

An existing regulation already bans more than eight minutes of commercial time in a feature film.

In the 2010 CCTV Chinese Lunar New Year's gala, a tradition for millions of Chinese on the Lunar New Year's Eve, placements were so intrusive that they were banned in the 2011 show on February 2.

The TV audience was outraged in 2010 when comedian Zhao Benshan mentioned a search engine 12 times in his short sketch "Making Donations," while Taiwanese magician Lu Chen, or known as Liu Qian on Chinese mainland, kept mentioning the name of a brand of fruit juice.

"More and more Chinese film makers will use produce placement to cover their costs," says Shanghai-based veteran critic Yan Wei. "But this can be a dangerous, double-edged sword. Film makers need to keep their bottom line and do it smart so products in the film don't hurt the plot and artistry."

Zhao Zijian, general manager of Maiqiu Advertising Co, says film and TV placement is increasingly used to close budget gaps and generate profit.

"The fame of the director and actors largely determines how much companies want to spend on placement," says Zhao. "They believe that the better the box office, the more the product placement will impact consumer behavior."

Psychologist Chen Zaiyue, director of the Hongkou District Office of the Minors Protection Committee in Shanghai, says product placement should be strictly limited in type and quality.

"The producers should think twice before they embed products in film and TV," Chen says. "The powerful impact of advertising on children and adolescents has been well documented. Any unhealthy concepts and false advertising can mislead children and teens, especially when it involves alcohol, luxury and violence."

The controversy recently heated up with the release of the romantic comedy "If You Are the One 2" by Feng Xiaogang, one of China's most successful directors. The film is strewn with placements for at least 10 brands, including wine, an online shopping website, hotels, an airline and life insurance.

"I didn't spoil the story because of advertising," Feng told a Beijing film forum on December 29. "If product placements are not harmful to the plot or to the enjoyment of the audiences, I believe it will be beneficial to Chinese films."

He said critics should criticize Hollywood as well and emphasized that placement is only considered in his films once the script is finalized.

"Minsheng Bank would've paid 5 million yuan (US$759,660) for the film if we used their credit card," Feng said, defending his artistry and ethics. "Then the film could have earned at least 100 million yuan before it premiered. But I didn't."

"Although ads are ubiquitous these days, the film makers should always bear in mind that content is king," says Professor Wu Gang, an expert in film and TV art from East China Normal University. "Audiences can't always afford big brands and film makers should be ethical and focus on the artistry and message. Otherwise, Chinese cinema and TV will lack strong and meaningful productions."

Other examples of product placement

? In the comedy-drama TV series "The Myth," a young Chinese man is hurled back to ancient times after touching a magic stone. But he still has his obviously branded mobile phone to connect him with the modern world. The logo is frequently visible as he calls, receives calls or plays cellphone games. Since the show is very funny and intends to be absurd, the logo isn't an artistic atrocity.

? Urban romance "Du Lala's Promotion" (2009) by director Xu Jinglei is a showcase for leading Western luxury fashion brands and an array of foreign cell phone and computer brands. It's the story of an ordinary young woman struggling to succeed in a Fortune 500 company, with many wealthy clients.

? Chinese brands are increasingly eager to be embedded into Hollywood blockbusters, but no good feedback is guaranteed. In "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" (2009) a Chinese clothing brand billboard flashes into the background of a fight scene but is soon smashed by the Decepticons. When the sponsor reportedly tried to argue, the producers shrugged it off, asking if they should produce a scene in which the Decepticons are smashed by the billboard.


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