The (Anti) Product Placement in Flight

Image courtesy of Flickr user davidgsteadman, 2009.

Image courtesy of Flickr user davidgsteadman, 2009.

by Matt Waller

The ubiquity of Anheuser Busch product placement in the Super Bowl, coupled with its five commercials that aired during the game, brought to mind the controversy that surrounded the fall film Flight. Back in the fall, Anheuser Busch probably didn’t do itself any favors by asking that the Budweiser logo be obscured or removed from Flight, whose alcoholic protagonist pounds Budweisers behind the wheel (in addition to his numerous binges on other prominently branded drinks). With the complaint, Anheuser Busch ignited an interesting conversation about Flight’s subversive take on product placement, where several brands of alcoholic beverages appear prominently throughout the film without the manufacturers’ prior knowledge or approval. In addition to Budweiser, Denzel Washington’s character, the alcoholic and cocaine addict pilot Whip Whitaker, indiscriminately guzzles down PBR, Rolling Rock, Smirnoff, Stoli, and the list goes on.

As NPR’s Priska Kneely points out, Flight departs from traditional product placement in that it goes out of its way to show specific products, but in a negative light, in opposition to the traditional tactics of product placement: “Bond makes alcohol seem cool; Flight makes it seem menacing.”* Kneely goes on, “Many of the beverage companies didn’t even know their products would be featured in the film, and some of them aren’t happy about it.” That’s obvious enough, but what exactly makes this work so effectively for Flight, to the extent that Anheuser Busch publicly commented on it? Why is it that it’s not just the ubiquity of alcohol, but the ubiquity of specific brands that is so impactful on viewers? In the spirit of the post-Super Bowl advertising debate that’s sure dominate the conversation for the next week, it’s worth revisiting.

Flight displaces branded products from the narrative their brands promote. The film takes branded alcoholic beverages out of the glamorous narrative of advertising and into the much uglier world of reality (or at least into another narrative meant to more realistically convey reality*). I’m not exactly sure what Budweiser’s current branding narrative is*, but as of the fall, its motto was “Great times are waiting: grab some Buds.”

That is not the world of Flight. Budweiser makes its first appearance in Flight as Denzel grabs some Buds and drinks them while he drives to go meet a heroin addict (Great times are waiting!). This certainly does not echo any of the themes of Bud’s Super Bowl ads: Coronation, Celebration, and Brotherhood (the respective names of Bud’s Super Bowl spots).  This is a picture of solitude and desperation. The beer, however, is as prominently branded in the film as it is in any Budweiser commercial. In this way, and with other brands throughout the film, Flight displaces a branded product from its narrative and shows how the product operates as an actual object in an actual world with actual humans. Hence Anheuser Busch being upset – sometimes, probably the majority of the time, its products’ effects on the real world don’t exactly inspire brotherhood or celebrate a coronation.

In addition, the film is basically a montage of anti-commercials. Flight is as saturated with bright, powerful images of booze brands as the Super Bowl was (In addition to the five commercials, there was the “Bud Light Cam.”). The film takes advertising’s tactic of constant exposure and over-saturation and uses it against itself. Just as in reality consumers are ceaselessly presented with advertisements, including ads for alcoholic beverages, so are viewers of Flight bombarded with images and brands relentlessly throughout the movie. I haven’t counted, but I would guess that there are not ten minutes in the film that go by without showing a branded alcoholic beverage.

Regardless of its intent—which seems to be fairly moralizing and didactic, when the film is considered as a whole—Flight presents an interesting take on product placement in film. By taking branded products, in this case alcoholic beverages, out of the narrative envisioned by the brand and into a different, more fragmented and human narrative—and by doing so aggressively and relentlessly—Flight reveals that consumerism can be a pretty depressing state of affairs. This is not a bold stance, but Flight does an impressive job of making this argument—well enough, at least, for both viewers and corporations to take notice.

* Though some, including myself, would argue that there are several points in Flight which are not realistic at all, but that’s beside the point.

* It’s not quite as clear as the narratives/messages of the three big light beers:

–Coors Light: “It’s fucking cold. We assume you’re too stupid to understand the concept of absolute zero, but it’s pretty much in that range.”

–Bud Light: “Drink this and watch football with your bros, bro.”

–Miller Lite: “You can actually taste it, and, um… you can drink it really fast out of bottles OR cans.”

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