With the onset of one of my favourite young adult novel series The Hunger Games, being adapted to film, a thought came to my mind. No, nothing about the casting, or the locations they’re shooting at, or costume design -- but how the hell are they going to use the tried and true method of product placement?
For those of you who don’t know, The Hunger Games is a novel series that takes place in a dystopian future, where North America as we know it has crumbled, and out of the ashes a dictatorship run country called Panem has risen. Each year for 74 years to commemorate a past rebellion against the all controlling capitol; two children aged 12 to 18 are randomly chosen from each of the twelve districts that surround the backwards utopian Emerald City, dubbed only The Capitol, to fight to the death on a televised reality program called the Hunger Games, that the entire country is forced to watch and/or endure. The main protagonist is a 16 year-old girl called Katniss, she is from one of the poorer districts called District 12, which is thought to be what remains of Appalachia. It’s a hard place to live, and the only revenue is seemingly from either being a trades person like a baker, or working in the coal mines. Panem as a whole, minus The Capitol and District 1 and 2 which are considered upper class and middle class by our standards, is hell on earth, where state sanctioned work forces are run like slaves, and starvation and dying of illnesses we’d now consider easily curable is the norm.
Now everyone is thinking, why the hell is this series so popular, again? And my answer to that is simple, the characters. They’re rich and well thought out, and they endear them selves to the reader like Anne Shirley or Huckleberry Finn did 100 + years ago. However, the allure isn’t just attributed to the characters, but the scenarios they are forced to be in. Yes, it’s dystopic, and unpleasant, and something we hope never happens to our family, or country, or to us personally, but that’s the draw in and of its self, it could happen. Product placement is my kick though, and I wonder quite keenly how a story that takes place in a world that does not exist as we know it can put contemporary products into the mix?
The first film I know of that deliberately used product placement was Steven Speilberg’s E.T The Extraterrestrial, and they did it well, and they did it right. Reese’s Pieces was the product prominently used in the film, and Hershey’s following the films release had a disputed report of a 65% to 85% sales increase. Not so bad a bad deal at all, and to think they originally approached M&M's and were rebuffed? It's also believed that once those numbers broke that the sometimes strange practice of product placement became the everyday for Hollywood. However, with a story like The Hunger Games, where the world as we know it is gone, how does Hollywood plan to place contemporary products your average person can recognise, and then think they might want to buy? The answer to me is this, The Capitol.
The Capitol is a stylised mess of product whores, and style mongers, hell bent on having the latest, the best, the most popular things in their hot little, sometimes strangely coloured hands. It is conceivable, and to me also may prove to be a great sight gag, if while Katniss is in The Capitol, that the people she’s surrounded by are adorned with electronic gizmos that have familiar logos like Apple, Sony, or Nokia. To really break it down, considering how influential companies like the ones I just named are now a-day, it wouldn’t be so much of a stretch for some of the most name brand and popular products to still be around even in a dystopian future. Just imagine the sight of seeing Katniss being plied with Cover Girl or Chanel makeup, while she’s getting ready for her initial appearances on television before the Hunger Games begin. Or the trademark red soles of a classic pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, are seen on the feet of one of her style team members. A soft drink company could even get on board, like Pepsi did for the Back to the Future trilogy, where when Marty McFly travels from 1985 to 2015, he orders a stylised futuristic bottle of Pepsi at a cafe. It can be done, and it can be done in a way that would be almost comforting and thrilling for people to see.
There’s a discomforting and depressing way that product placement can be used in these films though, and not in the sense that they can do it badly. Because The Hunger Games does take place in a dystopic future, contemporary products or logos can be aged and grimed up, and placed strategically in camera shots taken in Katniss’ home district. Envision the sight of children kicking an old glass bottle or can of Coke down a road, or someone having taken the aluminium casing from an Apple Macbook and welding it to the side of their home to patch up a hole. Simply taking the familiar things we use every day, and showing the audience what could happen if the world ends and they have no use anymore, it would be a great tool and a visual shake up and shock for many people.
I am greatly looking forward to seeing how they use product placement in the films, but mostly I’m just looking forward to seeing how this amazing story is going to be visualised.