Movies : Branded Into the Scenery : Commentary: Advertising is so much a part of life that it's understandable to find familiar products in films. But sometimes it goes too far.

Eric Harrison is a Times staff writer

In an early scene in "Mystery Men," this summer's superhero movie parody, the mighty Captain Amazing routs a pack of thugs terrorizing a retirement home party, then strides off with his publicist to meet the press. As reporters pepper him with questions about a Pepsi endorsement, of all things, we finally make out the patches crowding the insignia on Captain Amazing's chest--they're advertisements bearing names like Penzoil, Konica, Ray-O-Vac and Reebok.

Based on comic-book characters, Universal's "Mystery Men" offhandedly pokes fun at a culture in which heroism is but a path to celebrity, and the prime benefit of being famous is that you get to shill for corporate America. That the movie satirizes commercialism at the same time that it pushes consumer products (with a sly self-awareness that marks a number of recent films) is part of the fun.

In some other current movies, though, there's nothing funny about it--advertising hits you in the face with the subtlety of a billboard. Sometimes literally: Early in Disney's "Inspector Gadget," a billboard topples toward the screen bearing the Yahoo.com slogan writ large--"Do You Yahoo?" Obliterating the line between advertising and story, the "Yahoo yodel" the company uses in its TV commercials accompanies the scene. It almost makes endorsement-hungry superheroes seem quaint.

"Inspector Gadget" is one of the more blatant examples of an ever more visible school of market-driven filmmaking, which is itself part of a larger phenomenon: the overall ascendance of commercial values in all walks of American life. Advertising, it seems, is everywhere. And when it's missing from the picture, we nevertheless get its look and style. We've come to expect it. We may even want it.

Acquisitiveness has ever been a part of the culture, but this isn't even that. Brand names and commercial messages define the spirit of the age. For baby boomers, the saying goes, rock music provided the soundtrack for their lives. Nowadays, what is rock without the video? And flashy ads and videos joust for attention on MTV.

Much advertising today evades our defenses, the defenses of those who try to resist it, by coming from places we least expect. It's embedded in our entertainment; it's in the names of our sports arenas; it's disguised as segments on the evening news. And increasingly in our expanding Advertising Age, critics say it molds our popular art, perhaps even in the long run altering our notion of what art is.

In the summer hit "Runaway Bride," USA Today gets more screen time than the supporting players. Starbucks plays a major role in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." Federal Express scored two recent coups, landing attention-getting placements and glowing mention in both "Bride" and "Bowfinger."

And viewing "Inspector Gadget" is like watching a Saturday morning kiddie show with the commercials--gratuitous shots of brand names like Tommy Hilfiger and United Airlines--blended in. The hero's car comes with its own candy and soft-drink dispenser (Coca-Cola, Sprite and M&Ms; are among the favored products). The movie even ends with a spoken commercial for Disneyland.

Of greater concern, though, are the influences that aren't visible. Media critic Mark Crispen Miller believes it's "inevitable" that the growing commodification of popular art will have long-term effects. It goes beyond the placement of products to the way movies and television shows look, even to which ones get made, he says.

With their simplified story lines, quick cuts and striking but empty visuals, movies look more and more like commercials, and they're just as disposable. It's hardly surprising that so many currently successful movie directors come from advertising. Challenging, more deliberately paced movies get pushed out of the mainstream marketplace.

"If we're constantly exposed to bombardments of hyperactive spectacle, that's going to change our expectations of art in general," said Miller, author of "Boxed In: The Culture of Television" and editor of "Seeing Through Movies," a collection of essays on film.

"My quarrel has to do with the fact that there has to be tension between art and advertising," he continued. An essential property of art is that it presents the artist's view of life, in all of its complexities. "But advertisers are happiest with an affirmative vision," he said. "Any filmmaker who's worth taking seriously as an artist is interested in doing more with his work than providing a framework for the selling of Nike or Milton Bradley products."

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Movies and television shows aimed at children seem to be the ones most laden with advertising. In a 1995 report titled "Selling America's Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the '90s," the nonprofit Consumers Union cited product placements, along with merchandise licensing, in-school promotions, celebrity endorsements and advertorials (ads disguised as games or comics), as ways in which commercial messages "permeate most waking hours of our children's lives."

And earlier this month a survey released by the Center for a New American Dream, a nonprofit organization that advocates responsible consumption, found that 4 out of 5 parents believe marketing efforts pressure youths to buy items that are bad for them or too expensive, and 2 out of 3 want limits placed on youth-targeted ads.

In the movies it doesn't stop with inserting products. "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Episode I" has no product placements as that term is generally used (it's hard to push Twinkies in outer space), but some critics have accused the movie of being little more than a two-hour commercial for action figures and toys. George Lucas sacrificed plot and character development, they charge, in favor of highly marketable computer-generated characters such as Jar Jar Binks and Boss Nass. Such characters make up 60 minutes of the 136-minute movie and also figure prominently in multimillion-dollar marketing tie-ins by Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell.

Studios and filmmakers are reluctant to discuss product placements for publication. Spokesmen for Universal, Disney and Paramount (which respectively released "Mystery Men," "Inspector Gadget" and "Runaway Bride") all declined requests for interviews. But from a business perspective, the rationale for taking payments or services in exchange for placing commercial products on screen is that it partially offsets the high costs of production.

The benefits for the companies are obvious. "It's another way to reach people," said Dean Ayers, president of entertainment marketing at Anheuser-Busch Inc., and president of the Entertainment Resources and Marketing Assn., the product placement trade organization. Companies benefit not only because their products are shown on screen but also because they become associated in viewers' minds with actors who perhaps would never appear in an outright commercial, he said.

And if the movie is a hit, the product stays before the public for weeks; then it goes to video and television. "A commercial runs one time and that's it," Ayers said.

But placements also can sometime undermine whatever integrity a production might have one time had.

In "Runaway Bride," Richard Gere plays a provocative New York City-based columnist for USA Today, the kind of man's man who writes his column at the neighborhood bar, who's on a first-name basis with construction workers, and whose chauvinistic views so anger women that they can't resist hitting him on the street.

The filmmakers needed a nationally distributed newspaper, the kind read both in New York and in Maryland, where Julia Roberts plays a woman locally famous for dumping men at the altar. But it strains credulity that Gere's kind of column could find a berth in the studiedly unprovocative USA Today, and that a paper aimed at business travelers and people too busy to read would be the news source of choice for so many different types of people. In the film, almost everyone walks around with a copy of USA Today in their hands.

Last winter's "You've Got Mail" was another romantic comedy with a plot that revolves around a real-life brand. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan portray people who meet in an America Online chat room and fall anonymously in love. The movie takes its title from the words the online company uses to announce e-mail to users, and it uses AOL's graphic interface on the computer screens. But just as problematic as this oversaturation is the way another commercial plug undercuts the movie's theme.

The film sets up conflict between Ryan, who owns a quaint independent bookstore inherited from her mother, and Hanks, heir to a huge impersonal chain that threatens to put Ryan out of business. This is a perfect setup for a 1930s-style screwball comedy, the kind in which the common man (or woman) typically triumphs, and love redeems the soul of the greedy rich. But this is the 1990s. The movie lets Hanks off the hook. Ryan's company gets squashed, but she falls for him anyway. But even before this denouement, the movie has already announced its lack of conviction.

As Ryan walks to work fretting that the chain will crush her business, she stops in at Starbucks every morning for coffee. Why doesn't she patronize the coffee shop equivalent of her beleaguered bookstore? That would be in keeping with her character. But commercial linkages and interests stunted development of the movie's theme.

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Film historian and cultural critic Neil Gabler noted the extent to which art and commerce have become commingled in his recent book "Life: The Movie."

"Disney . . . made a popular film titled 'The Mighty Ducks' [in 1992] about a ragtag group of youngsters who are molded into a championship hockey team," Gabler wrote. "The company then bought a National Hockey League franchise, named it the Mighty Ducks, used for its logo the Ducks' logo in the movie and called its arena the Pond. . . ."

"In a brilliant stroke of cross-merchandising," he continued, Disney used the movie and its sequels to promote the hockey team, while the hockey team promoted the movies, and both sold products with duck insignia.

It's old news that corporate "synergy" has turned movies into marketing tools for soundtracks and vice versa. But with giant corporations eating up more and more media companies (Time Warner, for instance, not only owns the Warner Bros. film studios, but also HBO, CNN and Time magazine, not to mention the WB television network and Warner Bros. Music), the opportunities for synergy--and artistic compromise--are endless.

And new forms of "synergy" are constantly being created. In one of the more inventive examples, Miramax Films is a major financial backer of Talk, Tina Brown's new magazine, which exists in large part to find and publish stories that the movie company will then adapt into movies. Miramax snapped up a story from the very first issue, optioning the rights to a first-person account of a Ugandan hostage situation.

Nobody yet knows the extent to which the magazine will be used to promote films made by Miramax or its parent Walt Disney Co. But cross-merchandising was in evidence the night before Talk hit newsstands, when ABC's "Nightline"--ABC is owned by Disney--devoted its program to a story in the magazine, featuring on-air close-ups of the Talk logo. A few nights later, ABC's "20/20" did another segment derived from the magazine. And the A&E; network, in which Disney owns a significant stake, will plug Talk with a special on the star-studded party Brown threw on Liberty Island to kick off the magazine.

The Internet has opened up other new avenues for cross-promotion. On many Web sites, it's difficult to tell whether laudatory "reviews" of books, movies and products are honest or paid for. And respected publications that would never blatantly blur lines between advertising and editorial in their printed pages regularly link news stories to the commercial sites of advertisers such as Amazon.com, where they may purchase books on the topic they just finished reading about.

(It should be said here that concern broke out in journalistic circles in 1997 when this newspaper announced a restructuring meant to promote greater cooperation between the advertising and editorial sides. Critics, who later largely quieted down, denounced it as a lowering of the wall that traditionally separated the two functions.)

The problem with the blurring of so many lines--between advertising and art, advertising and news, advertising and life--is that eventually no one will know whom or what to trust. What in the world can you believe in when everything is a pitch? And how do you guard against it when so much of it is unseen, hiding in plain sight?

Not all movie product placements are without artistic value. They can be used in movies and television shows to lend an air of verisimilitude, much as a novel might use brand names to ground the story in a real time and place.

Director Stanley Kubrick, straining to make the British sound stage where he shot "Eyes Wide Shut" look like New York streets, stocked a newsstand with real publications, including most visibly the New York Post. The headline, "Lucky to Be Alive," echoes a line spoken earlier, and comments directly on the scene, in which Tom Cruise fears for his safety.

Spike Lee is known for doing similar things. A succession of New York newspapers with headlines about the heat instantly set the tone for his 1989 movie "Do the Right Thing." And in "Jungle Fever," he plants a copy of the New York Post with the headline "Doin' the Right Thing" in a scene right after the John Turturro character has bucked peer pressure and asked a black woman out on a date.

But what bothers Miller and others is the use of placements for no purpose other than to sell a product to an unsuspecting viewer. As the Consumers Union noted in its report: "Advertising invites skepticism. When others urge us to do what they want, one is alerted to the possibility that their wishes may not be in our best interest." Product placements work by eluding our defenses.

While visible to the naked eye, Miller said they "work as subliminal inducements because their context is ostensibly a movie, not an ad."

Ayers, the placement association official, blamed over-commercialization for the box-office failure of both the 1988 "E.T." rip-off "Mac and Me" and Bill Cosby's 1987 comedy "Leonard Part 6."

The public's embrace of "Inspector Gadget"--which grossed $75.9 million in its first four weeks of release--suggests that today's audiences don't seem to mind.

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