Thursday, April 28, 2011

"Demolition Man": Product Placement Done Right

I have been eagerly anticipating Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary about product placement in movies. I live in what is politely known as a small market (or no market at all if I’m honest) so I have not had a chance to see the film yet. But the discussion about product placement has always intrigued me. Is it inherently bad for film? Is there a time and place for it in film? For the record, I’m cool with product placement. I fall into the category of people that actually like it because it makes a movie seem more realistic because, let’s face it, we are surrounded by ads in our everyday lives. I didn’t think I had anything to write about the situation since I was so blasé. But then I revisited Demolition Man and realized that there was definitely something to say about all of this.

First off, let’s get into the mindless fun that is Demolition Man. I feel the need to admit that I first watched the 1993 movie when I was nine years old. In other words, I’m a lifelong fan because this movie left a stamp on me that no thoughtful criticism can erase. Anyway, I want to write about the ridiculous awesomeness of the film before I delve into the product placement issue.

Demolition Man is awesomely stupid. (There will be SPOILERS throughout for this film, by the way.) The whole setup of the film, that violent criminals are sent to a “cryo-prison” to be frozen until the future is a delightfully idiotic plot point. Let’s take the worst of our society and freeze them so they can terrorize future generations. Who really thought this was a good idea? Also, who cares? It happened.

Whatever. So John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) is wrongfully frozen along with the hammy villain Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) after an explosion in a violence ridden 1996 Los Angeles. They are both “thawed out” in 2032 San Angeles, a society in which violence (and all physical contact for that matter) has been outlawed, along with meat, alcohol, salt, cussing, and anything else that is “bad” for you. This fascist setup is completely implausible, but let’s go with it. It’s okay to accept the setup of this film because it’s one of the last classic action films of recent years. Demolition Man came out at a time when an action movie could be over the top without blatantly letting the audience in on the joke.

Stallone gets to spout off one-liners and Snipes to gets to guffaw at the very idea of being evil. These elements could only work today if the filmmakers made the movie so over the top that the film could only be a joke or if they acknowledged the audience multiple times. But 90s action movies were great in that they could be over the top without feeling guilty about it. Maybe this is nostalgia speaking, but I really wish action movies were still that simple.

Demolition Man is definitely one of those “future” movies, though. There are plenty of comedic elements that still make me laugh. The machine that tracks cussing is great. The new terminology everyone uses is hilarious. The use of “boggle” for “problem”; “tick tocks” for “minutes”; “joy joy” for “happy.” The air high-fives were a nice touch, and who can forget the three seashells? I still have to sit and contemplate that infernal riddle after every viewing.

Then there are the really dumb elements. Why does a museum keep a full armory of guns, let alone copious amounts of ammo? Did they not see the possible security problems? For God’s sake, they have a functional Civil War-era cannon in that museum! And how about the “scraps,” the underground starving ruffians? Yeah, they are so hungry, which is why they have food stands that sell “rat burgers” and beer. They even have enough surplus food to have beer nuts on the pub tables down there! Watch it again if you don’t believe me. You can even see that freedom fighter Edgar Friendly (Denis Leary) snatch a handful at one point.

Okay, okay, my love is obvious and I could honestly go on for at least another thousand words, but I’ll get to the point. “Demolition Man” actually has a lot to say about product placement if you give it a lot more thought than it deserves. First off, the future is almost completely devoid of advertising. There are no logos on clothing. The cars are all kind of plain and were not cars that you could actually buy in the present. (Unlike Steve Buscemi’s truck in The Island, for example, which was available to purchase when that film was released.) All of the video screens are provided by the fake company “FiberOps.” There is not a billboard in sight. In short, advertising is not necessary in this utopian future.

At this point those of you who have seen the film are shaking your heads and yelling, “Taco Bell!” I know, the fast food chain Taco Bell is actually part of the plot of Demolition Man. That is definitely product placement. But it’s product placement that says something. Taco Bell is not just a restaurant in the future…it is “the” restaurant in the future. As 1990s loving Lenina Huxley (Sandra Bullock) states, “Taco Bell won the franchise wars.” Hmm, franchise wars or the bidding war? Either way, in the world of the film, Taco Bell does not advertise. Sure, we the audience have to suffer through a strange Taco Bell commercial in which 1990s MTV dude Dan Cortes inexplicably cameos as a jingle singing pianist, but the characters never see a commercial.

Speaking of jingle singing, Demolition Man has more up its sleeve than just a clever excuse to have the characters eat at Taco Bell. It turns out that in the future popular music (as well as musical attention spans, apparently) has gone extinct. Everyone just listens to old commercial jingles. Brilliant! It fits the bland future’s simplistic nature while also giving the film an excuse to promote some products.

Which brings me to the actual advertisements in the film. Just because there are no current ads in the future does not mean they are nonexistent. Huxley loves the past, which means she loves ads. Some of the first ads we see are in her retro office and home. Those jingles are all from the past. Demolition Man represents a world that is above advertising to the point that it is only used for entertainment. The signs in Huxley’s office and home aren’t selling anything. Who would be the audience for that (ignoring the actual audience watching the film, obviously). And the jingles? Some of the products would actually be outlawed. I know some people would question the meat value of Armour hot dogs, but the company claims they are meat and meat has been banned in San Angeles. What good are ads for an illegal product? When was the last time you saw an ad promoting heroin in the present?

There are more ads in the film, but they are underground with the scraps, literally beneath the rest of humanity. The scraps are a poor group, but they still have enough electricity to power up their Bud Light neon sign. They have also painstakingly kept a 1970 Oldsmobile in tiptop condition and Pennzoil helped out a bit since a sign for the company is featured in the background. Strangely enough, it’s the Olds that melds the advertising of both worlds. When Huxley and Spartan burst above ground in the car to give chase to Phoenix they find themselves in the middle of a…you guessed it: Oldsmobile dealership. A dealership may not be an ad but it does prove that there are still competitive car companies and competition means advertising. We don’t see it, but it has to be there.

I’m not claiming that Demolition Man is without its corporate influence. It obviously is. But it is the rare movie that understands the necessity of product placement and plays around with that fact. What’s most impressive is that the film doesn’t get meta about it. The filmmakers didn’t have the opportunity to be meta back then since that new subgenre of film didn’t exist yet. Instead, they had to find a way to use product placement in an interesting way. That deserves a bit of credit. Just compare this film to other futuristic films. Minority Report is great but that film is swarming with product placement. Hell, at one point Tom Cruise goes to a mall to hide out. And how about the holy grail of futuristic films: Blade Runner? Coca-cola, anyone?

Looking back, Demolition Man may not be a classic example of an action sci-fi film. It may not even be a “good” movie. But when it comes to product placement, the filmmakers made it work in efficient and amusing ways. Nostalgia makes the film a classic in my eyes, but the film’s treatment of product placement deserves some attention no matter your opinion of the film itself. But give it a try anyway, because it’s a very fun movie…even if you hate Taco Bell.

Random Thoughts…because I just have more to comment on.

Jack Black is in this in one of his “blink or you’ll miss it” 90s roles.

Aren’t the names great? Spartan, Phoenix, Friendly. Do they mean anything? Maybe, but who cares?

Another product placement: As soon as Spartan thaws out, one of the first things he asks for is a “Marlboro.” Not a cigarette, but a specific brand. What a Neanderthal.

The film itself isn’t meta by today’s standards, but it is interesting how Huxley serves as the audience. I still laugh every time when it gets to the scene in which she exclaims how great it was when Spartan paused to make a “glib remark” before he killed a scrap.

I loved how Benjamin Bratt, the quintessential future man, was so easily turned to the dark side of advertising and decadence. In one scene he’s disgusted. In the next, you can’t tell him apart from a side performer like Jesse “The Body” Ventura.

And finally, Friendly, that future man with a past sensibility, gives a rant in which he mentions Jell-O and Playboy. How fitting than outcast should mention brand names.


  1. Nice review, and I also like the film. Unfortunately you're not quite there on the "bland" cars, far from it. GM spent a fortune on a tie-up with the film, so that some of its concept cars would be used in the film. The two most obviuous are the GM Lean Machine (silver tilting car) and the GM Ultralite Concept Car used as a police car. Also used are the other GM prototypes the Pontiac Banshee, Corvette Stingray III , Cadillac Solitaire, and others. And as for Steve Buscemi's truck in The Island, it's a PRODUCTION Chevy SSR, ie something you can buy from Chevrolet. I know you say you live in the middle of nowhere, but all this stuff is right there on the internet. All best wishes !

  2. I suppose my research could have gone deeper with the cars, though I will say that GM's sponsorship of the film is pretty pointless since you really have to look closey to even notice that Oldsmobile exists in the future. Paying money to put concept cars in a movie makes little sense to me. But thanks for pointing it out.

    As for Buscemi's truck, I guess I wasn't clear enough. I meant to reference his truck as an example of a car that you could buy in the present, but I can see now how it could be seen as the opposite. Editing coming soon.

    Thanks for reading the article,
    Eric Harris

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