Nightmare Marketing: How Product Placement Infiltrated Horror Movies
Content by Jeremy Burgess
A few months ago, I was watching a Thai horror movie about a killer crocodile—as one does—and something struck me even before the opening shot.
There, in the midst of all the production company and film studio logos, was the Pizza Hut logo. Yes, that Pizza Hut. My interest was immediately piqued, and then it all made sense minutes later. In the movie, a man gets trapped in a deep, empty swimming pool that is also inhabited by a hungry crocodile, and his would-be rescuer is—you guessed it—a Pizza Hut delivery man.
What a thrill it was to see such a blatant product placement like this. Reader: I was not mad at it! In fact, I respect these filmmakers tremendously for cutting a deal with Pizza Hut to help get their film financed. (Why Pizza Hut chose to invest in a Thai crocodile movie I do not know, but it is nonetheless inspiring.)
Product placement has been around forever. In fact, this clever spoof from 1988’s Return Of The Killer Tomatoes—featuring a young, mulleted George Clooney—tells you everything you need to know.
The killer tomatoes here aren’t exactly very scary, but product placement does tend to ascend to a higher place when it comes to horror films. In fact, according to a 2014 academic study, audiences find comfort in the familiar when watching a scary movie—and when their friends aren’t around, or they don’t do the trick, brand familiarity makes a good substitute. (No wonder that Pizza Hut pizza eased my mind when that man was at odds with a crocodile.)
Since it’s Spooky Season, let’s take a look at some of the most notable examples of product placement in horror movies.
The Shining (Jack Daniel’s)
Nothing is an accident in a Stanley Kubrick film. One of the true masters of 20th century cinema knew what he was doing when he stocked the bar of the Overlook Hotel with Jack Daniel’s. (A drink named Jack for a man named Jack playing a character named Jack.) And if you look closely in the Overlook’s stockroom, you’ll see plenty of front-facing labels for brands like Heinz, Oreo, Tang, and Frosted Flakes.
Get Out (Microsoft)
One of the few blemishes on Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning horror flick is the blatant product placement for Microsoft. We can forgive him because the budget was only $4.5 million, and it was his first time directing a feature. The phones and tablets used in the film clearly come from the Microsoft world, but perhaps the most egregious (and soon to be most egregiously dated) example is the use of the Bing search engine. Nobody has ever used or will ever use Bing. (Apologies to Source Code, which made this same mistake.)
They Live (Ray Ban)
Wrestling hero “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and genre legend Keith David might be the two lead actors in John Carpenter’s anticapitalist manifesto They Live, but (ironically enough) the star of the show was the sunglasses. You know, the ones where you can see through alien disguises when you wear them. These were Ray Ban sunglasses—a now-vintage model called the “Drifter”—and Piper even sold them on his website for many years until his death.
Alien Covenant (Steinway)
The most compelling character in Ridley Scott’s 2017 sequel is easily Michael Fassbender’s android named David, and David’s introduction at the beginning of the film prominently features a particular piano brand. In fact, when he’s asked to describe the contents of the room, he says “Steinway, concert grand” to really hit the point home. And if that still doesn’t do the trick, he plays a bit of Wagner to really show off the goods.
Jurassic Park (Ford Explorer/Jeep Wrangler)
The 1993 blockbuster (yes, nerd, it’s also a horror movie) treated us to a slew of iconic creature effects, but the vehicles used throughout the titular park became iconic in their own way. In case you had any doubts that dinosaurs are American, Ford and Jeep lent two of their most rugged and popular models to Spielberg’s film, and it made an impression on a whole generation of viewers. The next generation got a product placement of their own, though, with ““Verizon Wireless Presents the Indominous Rex” in Jurassic World.
E.T. (Reese’e Pieces)
Okay, so E.T. isn’t a horror movie. But it does involve an alien, and it definitely involves some next-level product placement. As the legend goes, Amblin Entertainment approached M&Ms as their first choice for E.T.’s favorite candy, but they turned it down. Hershey’s, on the other hand, jumped at the chance to have Reese’s Pieces used in the film, and wouldn’t you know it, E.T. became a classic and sales of the bite-size candy went up by an estimated 65-85%.
This one is also not a horror movie, but it is nonetheless the stuff of nightmares. The film takes place at “Marketropolis” where some of the most well-known food brand mascots—Charlie Tuna, Mrs. Butterworth, Mr. Clean, the Vlasic Stork, Chef Boyardee, and many more—come to life after hours and team up to defeat an evil corporate overlord called Brand X. (Or something like that. I have not seen it.) It is widely considered to be one of the worst films of all time.