1. The Ford Pinto, Cujo (1983) and Top Secret! (1984)
The Ford Pinto, the subcompact economy car and running national joke on wheels, was retired in 1980 after years of being an affordable laughingstock. But Ford Motor Co. was still absorbing punchline after punchline well into the ’80s, whenever creative types needed a car that audiences would instantly associate with phrases like “Found On Road Dead” or “Fixed Or Repaired Daily.” Say this for the Pinto in 1983’s Cujo, though: It can mostly withstand the vicious assaults of a rabid St. Bernard. What it can’t do is turn over when a mother and son need to peel away from the dog. The car barely makes it to the farmhouse where a part-time mechanic offers to nurse it back to health, and it becomes a kind of a tomb where the characters bake in the afternoon sun without food or water, waiting for death to come. It certainly looks more durable in Cujo than in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoof Top Secret!, where just one love tap on the back bumper leads to explosive results.
2. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Killer Joe (2011)
The words “Kentucky Fried Chicken” are never uttered in Killer Joe, William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracey Letts’ hick noir, but there’s no mistaking where the bucket of “K Fried C” comes from, even if the film offers no clear branding opportunities. By the time the now-infamous scene unfolds—and here’s a warning for those who’d rather the ending not be spoiled—a scheme to hire cop/moonlighting hitman Matthew McConaughey to murder a woman for an insurance payout has gone south, and McConaughey is done playing nice. Placing a drumstick where his other stick would be, he forces one of the trailer-trash conspirators, played by Gina Gershon, to perform a disgusting act of fellatio that ends in a vile mess of lipstick and chicken bits. It’s enough to turn viewers off fried chicken of all kinds forever—and even the promotional poster made sure they wouldn’t forget it.
3. Budweiser and Stolichnaya, Flight (2012)
Is there anything more misleading than the suggestion that consuming a delicious alcoholic beverage to excess, day after day, could result in a drinking problem? The brass at Budweiser and Stoli were unhappy with Denzel Washington using their products irresponsibly as an alcoholic pilot in Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, and sought to have them removed from the film, perhaps via the digital wizardry that now blankets all of Zemeckis’ work. A scene where Washington drinks a Bud while behind the wheel particularly incensed Anheuser-Busch, which didn’t allow clearances for its product. But the corporate bluster isn’t likely to lead to a DVD recall: Copyright law protects usage for artistic ends.
4-5. Heineken/Pabst Blue Ribbon, Blue Velvet (1986)
Most beer drunk on film goes unnoticed; sometimes filmmakers go to the trouble of coming up with fake names or obscuring the label, but most Buds and Millers are unremarked on and uncared for, the sort of commercial white noise that adds a sense of commentary-free verisimilitude. Not so in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, which uses two very different brands of suds to say something specific about its leads. As the movie’s naïve hero, Kyle MacLachlan plays a young college student who stumbles across a mystery in his supposedly innocent hometown. Heineken, his drink of choice, fits in perfectly with his callow sense of safety: It’s a cultured kind of drink, bought by those who are as interested in looking sophisticated and adult as they are in getting drunk. Then MacLachlan meets Dennis Hopper, a twisted, kidnapping psychopath. Hopper makes it very clear he’s not a big Heineken fan. He drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, which, pre-hipster-fication, was the cheap, no-nonsense stuff people drank to get seriously hammered for as little money as possible. These are smart pieces of characterization, helping to establish the distance between the characters as well as leading to one of the movie’s signature scenes—but as marketing, it’s bad news. The good people at Heineken probably don’t want their product associated with voyeurism, sexual ambiguity, and moral impotence; while the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewers can’t really get a lot of mileage out of their beer being the favorite of a perverted, murdering rapist. But if viewers are considering one or another, the answer is clear: “Heineken? Fuck that shit. Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
6. Volkswagen Beetle, Skyfall (2012)
James Bond is synonymous with his cars, from Sean Connery’s Aston Martin DB5 to Pierce Brosnan’s BMW Z-series roadsters. The Bond series is just as well known for its brazen product placement, with the most recent installment, Skyfall, receiving something like $45 million in corporate subsidy (from Heineken, Coke, Sony Vaio). But it’s a bit weird that Volkswagen would donate a fleet of brand-new Beetles to the production, only so Daniel Craig could bash them off a train car in the film’s breathless opening sequence—a sly commentary that the classically dorky auto is fit to be squashed by a guy better known for driving $200,000 sports cars. Maybe there’s no such thing as bad publicity? Eagle-eyed Bond fans will remember that 007 actually drives a VW bug at one point in the franchise. But it was in Octopussy. So again… yeah, not the smartest investment.
7. Pizza Hut, Back To The Future Part II (1989)
Movies set in the near future are prime targets for marketers looking to show off big-name brands, since seeing a Coke or Sony logo in 2040 cements the idea of the product’s endurance. (See: Minority Report, which held a record for product placement agreements until Skyfall more than doubled it in 2012.) Still, it’s weird that Pizza Hut would agree to represent its product in the first Back To The Future sequel as a dehydrated protein slab, zapped back to health in the hi-tech microwave ovens of the film’s 2015. Pizza Hut may never have deceived anyone as to the freshness of its ingredients, but the warning “DO NOT CONSUME UNLESS FULLY REHYDRATED” sounds downright ominous.
8. Ikea furniture, Fight Club (1999)
“What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” Ed Norton muses in David Fincher’s Fight Club, in an early sequence laying out everything that’s wrong about his life, and modern consumerist life in general. The essence of what’s wrong with his life: It’s filled with Ikea furniture. The problem isn’t the usual complaints about Ikea—that it’s cheap, spare, mass-produced, conformist, and soulless. It’s that Norton’s character equates himself with his property, and sees his decor choices as representing his identity. At least until a new acquaintance blows his apartment up to show him he doesn’t need objects to survive. The Ikea sequence, in which Norton’s apartment is populated with Ikea furniture and product descriptions evoking the catalog, is much like the “Choose life” speech that opens Trainspotting: It lays out everything that represents the normal, familiar, mundane world, then deliberately burns it to the ground as a mission statement for the film. And the first thing on the pyre, the first thing destroyed so Norton can embrace a radical, reaffirming new life, is an apartment full of Ikea furniture. At least all that white pine probably burned quickly and cleanly.
9-11. Carl’s Jr., Costco, and Starbucks, Idiocracy (2006)
Mike Judge’s cynical, fitfully hilarious satire Idiocracy envisions a future world where the dumbing of America has continued to the point where the human race is about to collapse out of sheer helpless stupidity. A massive part of that is the predominance of corporations, which have slapped branding on everything, and which use and abuse the populace, wringing the money out of their pocketbooks and then confiscating their children. A handful of familiar modern institutions still exist, but have degenerated in exaggerated ways, meant to point out some of the intelligence-insulting marketing already present in the modern age. For instance, the “Don’t bother me, I’m eating” ad campaign from fast-food chain Carl’s Jr. has been only slightly extended to “Fuck you, I’m eating.” Starbucks has maintained its market dominance and cool cachet by including handjobs on its menu. And Costco’s big-box stores have become frightening, city-sized institutions where a dull-eyed greeter makes everyone who walks in the door feel welcome with a plaintive, “Welcome to Costco. I love you.” In each case, the script seems to be asking the question, “What’s the presumed end stage of the stupidity each of these chains is using as promotion already?” None of them are flattering portrayals—or desirable product placement—but the sheer viciousness of the references does at least make the brand names memorable. Especially when Secretary Of State David Herman doggedly appends “Brought to you by Carl’s Jr.” to every other sentence, because his personal promotional deal pays him every time he says it.
12. Mac PowerBook, The Book Of Life (1998)
There probably is a little product cachet in pretending a particular laptop has the power of life and death over all humanity. And certainly the little grey PowerBook in Hal Hartley’s The Book Of Life is a much-coveted, heavily sought-after item. That said, it’s wryly amusing to see how Hartley’s camera focuses on the laptop, observing the Mac boot-up process, the OS screen, the simple desktop icons, and the then-fancypants color imagery as if he’s receiving a significant chunk of change to promote Apple’s product… which is then used to trigger a biblical plague and speed along the end of the world. Hartley regular Martin Donovan plays a returned Jesus Christ, a reluctant, frustrated prophecy-fulfiller come to earth to begin Armageddon, though he’d much rather leave humanity to itself. As laid out in the biblical book of Revelation, he has to open the seals on the Book Of Life to end the world—but in this case, the Book Of Life is a Mac program. It’s a nice little technological update, but it feels like a computer commercial. A very weird, unlikely, unsettling commercial for a product that represents the literal end of the world.
13. Coca-Cola, Deep Throat (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973)
In the early ’70s, Coca-Cola was such an international juggernaut that a band called The New Seekers actually had a hit record by recording their own version of the commercial jingle “Buy The World A Coke,” adapting it into “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.” That turned the product into one more taboo to be busted by enterprising sleaze merchants, like the makers of the film that helped inspire the term “porno chic.” In one of Deep Throat’s most notorious scenes, a glass tube is inserted into Linda Lovelace and filled with caramel-colored liquid. A man then sips it through a straw while part of the jingle plays merrily on the soundtrack. There’s some sex for you. Violence fans had to wait until next year, when a gangster threatening the hero of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye has his rant interrupted by his lovely young mistress, who informs him that she’s thirsty and would like a Coke. One of his goons fetches an open bottle from the refrigerator. The gangster swigs from it, complains that it’s flat, and then swings it into the mistress’ face, cutting it to ribbons. There is, at least, a savvy commercial message here: When you want a Coke, always open a fresh container.
14. American Airlines, Home Alone 2: Lost In New York (1992)
On the original VHS issue of Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, the feature presentation is preceded by an advertisement for American Airlines, which utilizes footage from the film and the airline’s then-current ad tagline, “Something special in the air.” What the commercial doesn’t include are the somethings-not-so-special on the ground that kick off young Kevin McCallister’s wayward journey to The Big Apple: a collision with an American employee, dozens of airborne boarding passes, and an unaccompanied minor ushered on to the incorrect flight. That representatives from the carrier allow Macaulay Culkin’s character to stay on the flight after he thinks he spots his father is a matter of necessary plot contrivance; it’s just not one that speaks highly to American’s diligence. The tradeoff for this fictional negligence was the aforementioned commercial and prominently featured footage of American jets, aircrafts that passengers could apparently board at random in the early ’90s, provided their final destination held the promise of slapstick hijinks.
15. Goodyear, Black Sunday (1977)
For decades, the Goodyear Blimp, that brand-name placement floating over televised sports events, has served as an outstanding promotional tool for the tire company. It even survived Black Sunday, in which Palestinian terrorists, working in cahoots with an unhinged Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern), hijack the blimp, intending to use it as a delivery system for mass death at the Super Bowl. They’re foiled by a Mossad agent played by Robert Shaw, but the image of the killer blimp, looking like a gigantic torpedo as it crashes into the stadium and causes panic among the terrified spectators, dominated the film’s advertising campaign. Goodyear actually consented to the use of its logo in the movie (though not in the advertising), presumably on the theory that if you were in, say, the shark business, you wouldn’t want anyone else’s product to play the villain in Jaws.
16. Harley-Davidson, Easy Rider (1969)
In a way, the Harley-Davidson motorcycles that take the heroes of Easy Rider all across this great land might seem like a great commercial for the brand: Captain America and Wyatt are the adventurous cowboys of their time, and the bikes are their loyal steeds, symbolizing the freedom and individuality that is theirs to claim. But Captain America and Wyatt are also drug dealers, and the bikes also kind of symbolize their irresponsible criminality and role in the drug culture; Cap uses his gas tank to store the wad of cash they earned by selling cocaine to Phil Spector, an act that has different implications today than it did in 1969. That highly explosive gas tank also serves as way too good a target for any passing rednecks with guns.
17. Jack In The Box, Total Recall (1990)
It seems like since at least the ’80s, filmmakers have shown futuristic environments less as sparkling utopias and more as bleak dystopias where crass commercialism and lowest-common-denominator social mores run amok. Such is the world that Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself in as he’s chased through the underground Martian settlement in Total Recall. As Schwarzenegger goes on the run, there are product placements strewn haphazardly everywhere, from a Hilton hotel to a Pepsi sign to a newspaper box for Mars Today, which looks exactly like the logo for USA Today, except in red. (Get it?) The sign that sticks out the most, however, is the one for Jack In The Box, which is seen numerous times as the bad guys chase Schwarzenegger around the colony. Why a third-tier, mostly West Coast-based burger chain would want to be the first one to have a franchise on Mars is anyone’s guess, but what doesn’t make any sense is why any of these products would want to be associated with scenes that make fun of how commercialized American life had gotten by the dawn of the ’90s.
18. Ajax, Up In Smoke (1978)
The first Cheech & Chong movie, Up In Smoke, is, in the words of William Shakespeare, a thing “of shreds and patches.” One of the most memorable patches comes in the form of June Fairchild, a starlet who had memorable bits in the Monkees vehicle Head and Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut, Drive, He Said. Here she sashays onscreen, mistakes a pile of Ajax cleanser for another white, powdery substance, and instantly achieves midnight-movie immortality. When hundreds of adolescent moviegoers inexplicably did not emulate this stunt and pile up in emergency rooms, the head of P.R. for the Ajax company must have felt like he’d dodged a bullet. In 2001, The Los Angeles Times tracked down Fairchild, who, at 54, was homeless and hadn’t worked since Up In Smoke, but was still hoping to restart her career. She told the reporter that “she knew Up In Smoke would be her last film for some time, so it had to be memorable for her comeback.”
19. Federal Express, Cast Away (2000)
It’s hard to see 2000’s Cast Away as a stellar endorsement of FedEx. On a delivery flight for the carrier, Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland crash-lands in the ocean and is shipwrecked along with an odd assortment of packages. If the failure to deliver on time wasn’t enough, Hanks proceeds to open most of the deliveries and use their contents (theft by a FedEx employee!). He does end up delivering one specific package at the end of the film, but it’s years too late. So, if you want a company that will carry your parcel in a faulty plane, lose it for four years, then finally deliver it without having you sign for it, FedEx is the brand for you. Rumor has it that UPS was offered to be the carrier that went down in the movie, but declined. FedEx accepted, presumably under the assumption that any press is good press, though was smart enough not to pay for having itself placed in the middle of a disaster.
20-plus. All of Josie And The Pussycats (2001)
The witty, underrated 2001 musical-comedy Josie And The Pussycats stands as the perfect snapshot of the Total Request Live era of MTV, when music and commercialism were naturally integrated in the Times Square studio. Beyond the fizzy story of a girl-band that hits the big time, the film levels a surprisingly sophisticated attack on corporate pop and how it leads kids to advertisers while intervening in the relationship between band and listener. And it does it through the use of real products, and lots of them, creating a logo-strewn landscape that’s so invasive that a Pussycat can’t even take a hotel shower without McDonald’s making an impression. While none of the individual products are shown in a negative light, together they become associated with an oppressive, Orwellian environment where companies take ownership of developing young minds. They are, after all, the Target audience.