Super sell me
If you’ve seen Steve Carell drink a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on “The Office,” Zach Galifianakis strap on a Baby Bjorn in “The Hangover,” Mike Myers take a swig of Heineken in the “Austin Powers” movies or Lea Michele whip off Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses on “Glee,” you may have wondered: Why did that product have to be there?
If you’re Norm Marshall, you’ve watched that same film or TV show and congratulated yourself on a job well done.
Marshall has one of the most unusual -- and polarizing -- jobs in Hollywood. Officially called an “entertainment marketing consultant,” his real task is more delicate and more blunt. Marshall is one of the premiere independent product-placement specialists, a role that requires him to be part diplomat, part translator and part enforcer on behalf of the countless brands that seek to promote their products by infiltrating mass entertainment.
Navigating the tricky waters of Hollywood to secure screen time for a brand -- and making sure characters stay on message once he does -- Marshall has a job that lies somewhere between Madeleine Albright and Michael Clayton. “I smooth out the rough edges,” he said in an interview, only slightly ominously.
Marshall makes a small but memorable appearance in “Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” documentarian Morgan Spurlock’s meta-exploration of product placement that opens Friday. In the movie, the director examines the product-placement system by attempting to get companies to finance his movie about, well, the product-placement system.
Marshall turns up midway through, recounting a story about how Alka-Seltzer, a client, was once portrayed negatively in a script for an independent film; he stepped in, he says, and got the scene cut.
While invisible to most moviegoers prior to Spurlock’s film, the veteran has been exerting his influence for decades. There are other marketing experts in the world of product placement, and many New York advertising agencies now have their in-house people. Few have done it as long, and almost none as colorfully, as Marshall.
A straight-shooting man in his late 50s who grew up north of Boston and later relocated to Southern California, Marshall has the bootstrapping look of a veteran salesman -- dark gray jeans, a no-frills haircut and a salt-of-the-earth demeanor -- but the contacts of a Hollywood producer. Those connections, along with a knowledge of advertisers’ wants and fears, give Marshall what he says is a built-in advantage over in-house executives. “I can do this a lot better than a brand manager sitting in an office in Des Moines,” he said.
In an interview, Spurlock called him “the king of Hollywood,” which seems like an exaggeration until you realize just how big a business product placement is -- Spurlock puts it at $3 billion per year -- especially in an era when more and more people are able to fast-forward through normal commercials.
To place a product, Marshall and his staff of about 70 employees at Norm Marshall & Associates spend their days “breaking down” hundreds of scripts -- that is, looking for opportunities to insert his clients’ products -- and then work over the various creative, marketing and logistics types to get it done. (Marshall declined to acknowledge which of his placements are paid and which are barter deals; that is, placements made not in exchange for money but for use of the product on the set. Such admissions, he said, “tend to backflush on me.”)
Cars top his list
Marshall’s biggest business is cars. He keeps a fleet of vehicles from General Motors, a longtime client, on a lot across the street from his office near Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport -- they’re cars in working shape that have been deemed unfit for one reason or another for consumer sale. (He has a separate lot outside New York City.)
Marshall’s pitch to the transportation managers on a set is simple:
“Someone will come to me and say they need a car for an action scene. I’ll say, ‘I have an Escalade you can blow up. It’ll be a lot cheaper than if you tried to do it with a car from Avis or Hertz.’ ” All he asks in return is that the car is shown prominently, and that the scene doesn’t impugn the car’s safety record.
It’s a scenario in which everybody -- at least everybody involved in the transaction -- wins. The car is given to the transportation manager, who’s happy he can check an item off his list at no cost. Marshall has satisfied GM and justified his retainer. GM, meanwhile, has gotten a free ad for little more than a car it wasn’t going to sell anyway.
Marshall conducts business from a sprawling ground-floor office amid auto-repair shops and dilapidated industrial lots.
Brand-centric movie images adorn the walls the way moose heads might festoon the living room of a game hunter -- there’s Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond in a BMW, Kevin Costner’s “Bull Durham” with Miller Lite -- all testaments to deals he has negotiated. An assistant stops by with some old merchandise she’s found for the Will Ferrell movie “Talladega Nights” with the Wonder Bread logo. Marshall takes it in his arms and gives it a loving stroke; apparently, the campaign was a hard-earned one.
After attending Cal State Long Beach, Marshall got his start in below-the-line Hollywood in the late 1970s renting trucks out to film productions around L.A. One day, he heard that a local beer salesman was handing out free Budweiser. He had a revelation: Why not ask for a case of it in exchange for convincing the props manager on a movie that he knew was shooting to put it in the film? His first product-placement deal was born.
Soon after, Marshall convinced the St. Louis manufacturer of police squad-car rooftop light bars to let him represent them, getting the bars into some key scenes in “E.T.” (Why would a company that manufactures such items care whether they appear in a Steven Spielberg movie? Companies compete for police-department contracts, and the ability to say that Hollywood uses your product can tilt a bid in your favor. Even police departments, it turns out, are influenced by product placement.)
Other deals followed. In 1990 Marshall got USA Today featured in the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi classic “Total Recall,” even allowing the paper’s signature banner to be recast as “Mars Today.”
The occasional violence in the film prompted one board member to protest; Marshall says he went to the head of Gannett, which owns USA Today, and persuaded him otherwise.
Helping the story
Marshall is aware that his job doesn’t always make him popular with viewers.
But Marshall says that “marketing is just a part of life” and that if a brand is placed organically in a movie or show it can not only be unobtrusive but serve the character and story line. (The complexity of getting everyone to agree on a placement ensures that paid placements account for no more than one-third of all brands viewers see in movies and programs, he estimates. Consumer advocacy groups say the figures are far higher.)
Marshall points out that some of the most iconic scenes in moviedom have been enabled by his product-placement efforts: In the mid-1990s, he heard about a movie filming with Tom Hanks that had a number of period scenes.
Iconic film scene
He quickly called executives at Dallas-based Dr Pepper and said there was an opportunity to be a part of an interesting little movie. They grabbed a bunch of bottles from a lobby display and shipped them to the set. The famous soda-swigging scene in the White House with Forrest Gump and JFK was forged.
Still, Spurlock and others say that what Marshall does can be dangerous if it’s not checked.
“There has to be a balance between the creative forces and the marketing forces,” the director said in an interview. “Otherwise it’s just one big commercial.”
And others say that Marshall’s shoe-leather methods could soon become obsolete.
Martin Lindstrom, an expert in the growing field of neuromarketing who’s also featured in Spurlock’s film, says that in the future, brands won’t be plopped in on a whim but based on studies of how the brain reacts to different placements.
“Media optimization will increase so that you don’t have 117 brands in a Bond movie but three, based on brain response,” Lindstrom said in an interview -- a prospect that, if true, could force Marshall to change his methods and business.
For now, Marshall is content to keep flogging his brands and flagging what his clients see as problems. About the only thing that bothers him, he says, is that he really can’t take pleasure in watching many contemporary series or films anymore. “If I want to relax,” he said, “I just watch period movies.”