“Our algorithm takes into account hundreds of things the competitors don’t,” said the eHarmony guy on the phone.
“Yeah, that’s why I like it,” replied Walter Mitty.
I’m paraphrasing slightly here, but the above is one of the first pieces of conversation held in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a movie all but drowning in product placement. A movie that perhaps shows us the future of advertising in movies.
It’s certainly the latest in a long, long line of movies that feature products prominently. Wings, the first film to win an Academy Award, features the placement of Hershey’s chocolate in one scene. Bulova paid money for one of their clocks to appear in the climactic sequence of Gun Crazy. And James Bonds’ adventures always feature known brands, well displayed.
There’s an argument to be made for product placement, and it’s not just a financial one. We live in a branded world, whether we like it or not. Logos and corporate products play huge, continuous roles in our lives, even if we don’t consider ourselves consumers of them. It’s a rare American who can make it through a whole day without seeing the logo for a soda, the sign for a fast food joint or a specifc make of car on the road. We’re people who pay money to wear corporate logos on our clothes. Branding is everywhere, and it should be reflected in movies - it only makes sense. Nothing punctures an audience’s suspension of disbelief as quickly and subconsciously as characters holding a can of soda so that the logo is never shown, or even worse drinking a clearly phony soda. It’s a unique kind of artifice that illuminates the rest of the artifice in the movie.
And there’s a joy in watching an old movie that features older versions of brands; I love watching old New York City-set films and looking at the signs and the logos on display in the past. I’ll roll my eyes at a McDonald’s on screen today, but a 1970s Mickey Ds has a kitschy, enjoyable quality. Of course there’s something to be said about the fact that a pre-1980s cityscape wouldn’t be as choked with chains and corporate logos as today; these older movies allow us to look back at a time when there were actually local businesses that thrived in a pre-chain world.
Products can also add depth to a fictional world. Mad Men’s advertising campaigns wouldn’t be half as effective if they featured phony companies; by tying the lives of Don Draper and friends in with recognizable, historic brands, Mad Men creates the sense that we’re watching something tied in with our own lives.
Interestingly, Mad Men doesn’t always get money from the products they feature. Many of the brands in the show are used with either simple clearances or with the understanding of fair use. Movie studios, ever worried about legal ramifications of any decision, tend to over-clear logos. They don’t have to; while using a logo in a commercial venture would be infringing, using it in an artistic one - and even the most blockbustery movie counts - wouldn’t be. Of course there’s no guarantee the logo owner won’t sue, so nobody in Hollywood takes the chance. Future generations won’t have the same experience we have with old movies showing random logos because modern films often take time to digitally erase billboards and advertisements from backgrounds, all to avoid a potential - and hugely unlikely - legal hassle.
Walter Mitty is saturated in logos and corporate products, and the movie exemplifies both the best and the worst use of product placement. In the film Mitty works at Life Magazine, which is shutting down print operations and going online-only. The movie serves as an elegy for a cultural institution that is vanishing, and it’s filled with classic Life covers, people rhapsodizing about the magazine and the publication’s motto even plays a role in the plot. All of this feels right, and having Mitty work at some fake, clearly-based-on-Life magazine wouldn’t have had the same impact. Watching a story about the final print issue of Life adds depth to the movie.
But in other scenes The Secret Life of Walter Mitty all but stops to create mini-commercials for products. In the opening Mitty is using eHarmony to try and flirt with the new girl at work, which is fine - using a real dating site adds authenticity to his world. But when he has a problem with the site and calls into customer service, we get the exchange at the beginning of this piece, where Mitty and the rep sit around and discuss why eHarmony is so good.
Papa John’s looms large as well; Mitty worked there as a 17 year old in New Jersey (which I’m pretty sure couldn’t have happened, looking at Papa John’s corporate history) and then incongruously finds a Papa John’s in Iceland. Instead of being an ugly blemish on the landscape (which the film lovingly celebrates - I wonder if Iceland and Greenland are actually product placement as well), Papa John’s - perhaps the shittiest chain pizzeria in the land - is a symbol of home and the old days. It’s comforting. And its logo is displayed again and again in close-up.
When Mitty gets home he winds up at an airport Cinnabon (eating with his eHarmony contact, played by Patton Oswalt, whose participation in these scenes makes him basically a corporate huckster in the middle of the movie) where the company logo is displayed in close-up and a conversation stops to wax about how damn good The Product is. It is exactly like a TV commercial has been suddenly spliced into the movie.
Maybe this is the future, which is found in the past. Early TV shows would have hosts stop what they were doing and pitch products to the camera; Johnny Carson and Fred Flinstone both would sell cigarettes to the audience. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty feels like it’s in that vein; it isn’t enough to see Mitty eating at Cinnabon, we have to be told by the characters how delicious the food is. What could have been an innocuous backdrop for a conversation becomes, instead, a grating commercial. And as brands fight for space in front of your eyeballs - one of the side effects of a totally branded landscape is that brands fade away from our consciousness - this could be the new frontier of product placement.
Which isn’t to say it’s new to movies, either - Will Smith stops to comment on his sneakers in I, Robot. But there’s something overwhelming about the placement in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - which doesn’t end with what I’ve described here, and includes airlines, banks, backpacks, toys and even other movies - that makes the movie feel less like a film and more like a longform commercial. It’s a beautifully shot movie, but so are many commercials, and its soaring rock soundtrack is filled with songs that sell us cars every day. In one scene Mitty skateboards down a long, winding Icelandic road while The Arcade Fire blares on the soundtrack. And then he goes to Papa John's. With some editing this could be a Super Bowl commercial. The whole movie is like that, a longform version of a Super Bowl commercial
But perhaps this is what audiences want. We live in a culture where people go crazy for manipulative, shitty commercials and boast online about loving them. Where TV advertisements spawn t-shirts and memes and mash-ups. Where people get actually defensive and angry if you question why they like a dumb car commercial featuring a kid in a Darth Vader costume (a two-fer advertisement!). In the 21st century our culture is one that embraces the cheap, aggressive tactics of commercials, the broad appeal of corporate mascots and the tacky ubiquity of logos. Maybe The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the not-so secret reflection of our world.