How Natural Born Killers changed product placement

Feature Simon Brew
11 Dec 2013 - 06:58

Not all publicity is good publicity, as Coca Cola found out in Natural Born Killers, a film that changed the way brands worked with movies

In Jane Hamsher's excellent book, Killer Instinct, the producer charts the difficult path she and Don Murphy had in bringing Natural Born Killers to the big screen. Natural Born Killers was, of course, originally a Quentin Tarantino screenplay, one that changed dramatically when Oliver Stone signed up to direct the movie.

Tarantino sold the rights to the film for $10,000 after he'd tried to set the project up himself - this was before the Oscar-winning success of Pulp Fiction - and would regret the decision. That said, rumours that he held animosity towards Oliver Stone himself were just that. In interviews since, Tarantino has always been respectful towards him.

Back to Killer Instinct, though. There are a couple of passages in the book which relate to the way product placement was used in the film. Firstly, Hamsher reports how one particular shot was required in exchange for free pairs of cowboy boots for some of those making the movie. The trade off was that the brand name of said boots was on the side of a truck that needed to be included. Stone included the shot.

But the part of the film that was going to have further ramifications for how product placement was approached in the movies was mainly around the sitcom segment, I Love Mallory. This is where Juliette Lewis' character in the movie appears alongside Rodney Dangerfield. It's a divisive scene (Tarantino describes it as the moment he turned the film off), where Stone shifts the tone of the movie, but not the content. As such, by putting a sitcom laughing track behind the exploration of Mallory's hugely unpleasant father, Stone makes uneasy points about what we laugh at in a sanitised entertainment context, using incredibly dark humour to do so.

You might not like the scene, but it's an interesting approach. And then, pretty much straight after it, there's an advert for Coca-Cola. If you were one of the many who sat there at the time of watching the movie wondering why on earth The Coca-Cola Company agreed to that, then you were not alone. Certain executives at The Coca-Cola Company more than shared your view. The famous Coca-Cola polar bear advert was used on more than one occasion throughout the film, mainly when Stone was making points about violence, 

So how did it happen? It's a simple question, with a simple answer: the Natural Born Killers team asked, The Coca-Cola Company said yes. What The Coca-Cola Company didn't do, crucially, was watch the film in time, or apparently insist that they saw it before it was released.

As the Associated Press reported back in August 1994, "Coca-Cola thought that the spot was to be used in a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones watched the Super Bowl on television. Instead, the commercial is interspersed with images such as a headless, bloody body. The spots were used three times in the film, intercut with brutal images of mayhem".

A statement issued from The Coca-Cola Company back in 1994, with no penchant for understatement, went on to say that "we're concerned that our commercial is being used in a way we didn't intend and weren't aware of".

It would be the last time that Coca-Cola took such a relaxed view to product placement in movies and television. Before then, it had been used to positive appearances in the likes of Jaws, Superman and Superman II. Its agreement with the producers of Natural Born Killers was based on similar thinking, clearly. Said agreement appears so watertight that it can't now get its commercial removed from further releases of the film.

Oliver Stone himself admits on the commentary track for the film that The Coca-Cola Company board of directors was "furious" when it saw the finished movie, and how its branding had been used to punctuate key moments of the film. This clearly wasn't the vision that the firm had when it got involved with movies. At one stage after all, The Coca-Cola Company owned Columbia Pictures, eventually selling the film business to Sony in 1989. It does make it all just a little more surprising. After all, this wasn't a company with no experience of films and how they worked.

And yet Natural Born Killers was testament to the way product placement was seen back in the early 1990s. The Coca-Cola Company formalised its processes in the aftermath of Natural Born Killers, and many big brands heeded the same lesson. Processes were put in place, and companies suddenly became a lot more guarded about how their brands were used in the movies.

Arguably as a consequence of this, the product placement business mushroomed. Because both studios and brands worked out how this could be mutually beneficial, if put on a more formal footing. It wasn't as if money hadn't changed hands before in exchange for brand names appearing in films - although a lot of product placement back then was actually free of charge - but the proverbial goalposts most certainly shifted. Product placement became more controlled and sought after, from both sides of the fence.

In 2000 for instance, just six years later, The Coca-Cola Company actively sponsored a Warner Bros TV show by the name of Young Americans. The show didn't last, but the sign that things had changed came when a scene in it was reshot because a Pepsi machine was in the background at one stage. The Coca-Cola Company had gone from a business that had blindly signed off the use of one of its iconic commercials, to one that was examining the deployment of its branding in minute detail.

Should all of this change be laid at the door of Natural Born Killers? No, of course not. But it's hard not to see Oliver Stone's film as a catalyst for change. The sheer exposure the Coca-Cola ads got from their positioning in that film was an eye-opener, and it led to brands being far, far more controlling of their message. For a long time, trust was out of the window.

Consequently, studios were alive to the impact such product placements would have, and it's now a given that product placement can take the edge off the price of a particularly high blockbuster movie budget. Just check out Man Of Steel: Warner Bros lured in Budweiser, iHop, CNN, Sears, Nokia and many more. According to reports, such 'commercial partnerships' (that's the current terminology) brought in over $160m. In all, over 100 contracts with 'global marketing partners' were signed for Man Of Steel, and product placement made up a solid amount of those.

It's certainly a lot different from 1994. And while the collision of Natural Born Killers and The Coca-Cola Company had been coming, that it was those two that collided - on such a controversial film anyway - was the key variable. Yet so laid back was product placement in cinema, even in the early 1990s, that something was soon going to give. It did, and the ramifications do continue to be felt. It's telling that no company has been caught out the same way again.

For The Coca-Cola Company at least though, the reminder of the cost of not properly checking how product placement is being deployed remains present every time a Natural Born Killers disc is sold, or the film is screened somewhere. It's proven to be a very hard lesson, and one that, in some small way, started a sea change in how movies, televisions and big brand products would work with each other. We suspect, too, that it didn't help sell too many cans of Coke at the time...

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