Why Die Hard 2 Was Sued by Black & Decker

Die Hard 2 was a box office hit - but it was taken to court for damaging Black & Decker's credibility...

Product placement in movies underwent a bit of a transformation following the infamous case of Coca-Cola and Natural Born Killers. I’ve written about that in more detail here.

In the early 1990s, it was nowhere near the polished industry we know it as today. The one where a blockbuster film can routinely come with 100 or so commercial tie-ins, and where branded products are shunted in front of our eyes, as if the local theater has just switched QVC on for a second.

Back when 20th Century Fox pressed ahead with Die Hard 2: Die Harder, it knew it had to find a hefty budget. Producer Joel Silver’s films were at the stage where they were blowing through heavier amounts of cash to bring spectacle to the screen, and the salary for vest-wearer-in-residence Bruce Willis had skyrocketed. It’s estimated that Die Hard 2: Die Harder cost around $75 million to make, at a time when that kind of money being spent on a film negative was unfathomable. Pieces in the trade press at the time speculated – in the pre-DVD era, remember – whether the film could ever hope to turn a profit.

It did.

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But the production also had to issue Black & Decker a refund, as a consequence of a scene being cut in the edit. The case offers a glimpse at the specifics involved in a product placement contract.

20th Century Fox and Black & Decker agreed a $20,000 deal for the latter’s cordless power drill of choice at the time – the Univolt – to be seen on screen in the movie. The specific scene was one where Bruce Willis’ John McClane was set to remove an air-duct grill in an airport tunnel, and he would do so by whipping out his Univolt.

Black & Decker consequently – you think we make this up – arranged a marketing campaign around this. It targeted a promotion in line with the film’s June 1990 release – just in the midst of Father’s day gift buying season – that would have pushed the Univolt in up to 17,000 stores around the US. I’ve no idea what form this promotion would have taken, but it’d be lovely to think it would specifically target people who needed to remove duct grills in airport tunnels, in the event of a terrorist emergency.

The problem, though, was that the scene in question was cut out of the movie. Univolts and John McClane would no longer be intertwined in the minds of cinemagoers.

Black & Decker did not take this kindly, and it promptly filed a civil lawsuit against marketing agency Krown/Young & Rubicam, demanding $150,000 in damages for its “loss of credibility” with its customers. The firm argued that it had numerous tie-in events and promotions planned – the mind boggles – but had to swiftly can them when it found out three days before the film’s release that the Univolt’s starring moment was no more.

Black & Decker argued that it was promised its product would be prominently displayed, and there would be “hands-on usage”. Imagine its disappointment.

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In a further twist, it turned out that it never actually handed over the $20,000 in question, but it nonetheless wanted to recoup the six figure sum it had spent on its promotion.

What’s notable about this case, apart from it being very funny, is that it’s the first known case of a studio being sued over product placement in the movie. Black & Decker, it turns out, was wise to go to court, too. 20th Century Fox and its agency actually coughed up, settling the case out of court. To date, footage of the Univolt has never turned up in Die Hard 2 deleted scenes.

In one last cruel twist of fate, the Univolt, sadly, is no longer available. Still, Black & Decker offers a wide range of power tools should you wish to personally repel a terrorist attack. Den Of Geek takes no responsibility for you doing so.