Top Ten Movies That Did PR for Real Brands
by Adam Dickter
On November 15, “Ford v Ferrari” will roar into theaters, packing a publicity boost for two great global auto brands right on the marquee. The film explores the rivalry between auto innovators Henry Ford Jr. and Enzo Ferrari.
Whether the result of a paid product placement, a screenwriter’s whim or an essential story detail, there’s a long history of big screen PR for real brands—from James Bond’s Aston Martin and Marty McFly’s DeLorean to ET gobbling Reese’s Pieces.
With that in mind, here’s the Top Ten (in descending) list of big studio films in which the product was essential to the plot, boosted the brand and (as far as we know), was not part of a company marketing campaign.
10. I, Robot (2004) – Surprisingly, the company whose robots go berserk in this sci-fi thriller starring Will Smith are depicted as the products of US Robotics, founded in 1976 in Chicago, and currently a unit of UNICOM Global. While no one wants to see their products depicted as faulty and dangerous, the idea of the company as a leading tech innovator in the year 2035 is still arguably flattering. And you have to admit, having your stuff blown up by Will Smith is kind of a cinematic honor.
9. The Founder (2016) – Director John Lee Hancock didn’t set out to promote McDonald’s, but there’s much to be learned in this biopic starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc who singlehandedly transformed American fast food. The thousands who left theaters craving a Big Mac didn’t hurt the company’s bottom line either
8. Moneyball (2003) – There are plenty of movies about real sports teams. However this one, based on the book by Michael Lewis and starring Brad Pitt, showcased a brainy, metrics-based approach to fielding players by the Oakland Athletics, which resulted in the team winning the American League West title. (The postscript isn’t as rosy: The A’s lost to the Twins in the Division series, and haven’t had a World Series appearance since 1990.)
7. Top Gun (1986) – The Tom Cruise classic might as well have been a recruiting ad for the US Navy. The military brass cooperated with aerial footage and access to its flight school in Miramar Florida, and got great ROI – recruiting soared faster than an F-14.
6. Sideways (2004) – This Alexander Payne comedy did wonders for California Wine Country tourism with its offbeat depiction of two buddies on a pre-wedding road trip sampling premium vintages. Several real wineries are featured. On the flip side, Giamatti’s classic expletive-laced refusal to drink “any [expletive!] merlot” probably didn’t help sales of that variety.
5. Steve Jobs (2015) – Jobs, who died in 2007, was a better innovator and visionary than he was a boss, partner, husband or humanitarian. No credible account of his life could overlook that, but this film written by Aaron Sorkin chronicles his instrumental role taking Apple from a garage operation to a global concern. Revolutionaries are often self-absorbed. What matters to investors is how their products change our lives.
4. The Social Network (2010) – With its casting of Jessie Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake as gutsy startup pioneers, this Sorkin-written film helped cement that platform’s cool image, while making Mark Zuckerberg’s detractors and legal adversaries look hapless. In a courtroom deposition, Zuckerberg dismisses opposing counsel with, “you are not entitled to my full attention.” Classic, as is his pejorative labeling of the twins who accused him of defrauding them as “the Winklevii.” In a striking visual, Zuckerberg stands in front of a giant display waiting for his user count to reach one million, a powerful and prophetic sign that the company’s viral growth is as inevitable as it is daunting.
3. Blinded By The Light (2019) – Bruce Springsteen doesn’t need help selling records. But he and Columbia Records couldn’t have asked for a better vehicle to reach new audiences than this 2019 feel-good musical based on a true story. It’s much less about Springsteen than about cultural isolation and the transformational power of well-written, timely lyrics, likely boosting sales of the now-septuagenarian rocker’s catalog.
2. Spotlight (2015) – There are enough flicks about print journalism to fill a Sunday supplement, from the classic All the President’s Men, to Ron Howard’s 1994 The Paper and most recently, The Post. But this Oscar-winning drama, about a Boston Globe investigation, is probably the best of the bunch, focusing less on the crusade of reporting than the humanity of the journalists, as they struggled with the emerging story of concealed abuse by priests.
And at number 1, one of my all-time favorites, Cast Away (2000) – Director Robert Zemekis could have used a fake courier service as Tom Hanks’ employer when his plane crashes in the Pacific, stranding him alone on an island for years. But the Federal Express logo seen throughout the film gives this powerful drama more authenticity, as Hanks struggles with isolation and hopelessness, but prevails through resourcefulness. While the jarring image of one of its planes crashing into the sea isn’t great for Fedex, Hanks’ performance as a workaholic so focused and devoted that he (spoiler alert) ultimately manages to deliver one salvaged package from the doomed plane to its intended doorstep is PR gold, as is the long shot of the company logo at a terminal celebrating the return of “one of our family.” Wilson sporting goods also scored a win. Who knew volleyballs could double as a castaway companion?
Looking forward to the big race in “Ford v Ferrari.” Don’t tell me who wins. But I have a hunch that when it comes to brand identification in a fast-changing auto market, both companies will come out ahead.
Adam Dickter is a director at Dukas Linden Public Relations.