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Product Placement – Hooray For Hollywood

d=”standfirst”>Inspired by Clos du Val’s starring role in The Terminal, other Californian wineries are looking for a little movie magic of their own, says Jon Rees

When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night to reveal a manly chest, rather than the expected vest, sales of vests plummeted in America; conversely, when he lit up a cigarette, every guy taking his date to the movies did the same.

The vest was forever damned by Gable’s actions in the1936 film, while it has only been in the last few years that tobacco companies have revealed how important Hollywood film stars were in the marketing of their products. The cigarettes were not just supplied to film sets, but directly, by the case, to the actors themselves, and tobacco executives were reportedly constantly surprised by how keen even multimillionaires were to get their freebies. Naturally, it is not just cigarettes that sell better with the help of the flicks. There is a whole industry aimed at fostering product placement, as it is called, in film and television.

Companies like Set Resources, the entertainment marketing firm run by Aaron Gordon and based in Santa Monica, California, will, for a reasonable fee, do their utmost to get products in front of the cameras and into the hands of the stars. Set Resources has had particular success with Californian winery Clos du Val, based in the State’s famous Napa Valley. In The Terminal, a film starring Tom Hanks which was released in the US in June, Hanks’s character, Victor Navorski, was originally intended to woo a flight attendant during a romantic dinner à deux with Champagne. Director, Steven Spielberg, decided that this looked a little too pretentious and that a bottle of red wine was more romantic anyway, so the Champagne was dropped. Fortunately for the prop master, David Harlocker, Clos du Val had delivered several bottles of its Cabernet Sauvignon to the set in Palmdale, California,  in case just such an opportunity arose. “We offered up a bottle,” Harlocker told The Los Angeles Times, “and Steven said that would work fine.”

The bottle’s distinctive terracotta-coloured label is highly visible in the scene and it already stars in the film’s trailers and promotional stills. The Clos du Val winery is a relatively small operation, but by giving just 240 cases of wine out of the 65,000 it produces annually, to be used as give-aways in Hollywood it has achieved a stature out of all proportion to its size. For instance, James Gandolfini serves Clos du Val in the hit mafia show, The Sopranos, while in last year’s Oscarnominated 21 Grams, Sean Penn supped the stuff too. In fact, Aaron Gordon, who is paid a little less than $5,000 a month by Clos du Val to get airtime exposure, reckons it appears in more films and television shows than any other brand. 

Unlike other wine brands, the winery does not pay the studios to include its product in their shows, but it is Gordon’s job to make sure the wine is on hand at premieres, while it is also delivered free to key directors, actors and prop masters. In total, the winery gives away about $36,000 of wine at wholesale prices, but in return the wine has appeared in over 100 films and television shows. There is no definitive way of measuring the effect of such marketing but executives at the privately owned winery say sales in the first quarter of the year were 50% up on the previous year.

The company says it knows from focus groups that the number one thing consumers know about Clos du Val is the terracotta label with the curlicues. The resultant brand recognition works well in the shops, with consumers picking out the brand’s distinctive label on the shelves. 

When brand owners place their products in the hands of the stars it is the equivalent of getting positive coverage for their products in the editorial section of a newspaper, rather than having to pay for advertising. Viewers are effectively caught unawares, and rather than naturally resisting the blandishments of advertising, they are inclined to treat editorial coverage as independent validation for a product. Indeed, in some ways, product placement is the nearest equivalent to the famous subliminal advertising techniques first discussed in Vance Packard’s seminal study of advertising, The Hidden Persuaders.

Naturally, Clos du Val is not the only winemaker to spot an opportunity. Indeed, California’s biggest wine producer, E&J Gallo, is doing its best to follow the same profitable course. It has seen its products, including Rancho Zabaco and Ecco Domani brands, appear in various toprated shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, while its Turning Leaf brand turned up in the 2002 film The Banger Sisters starring Goldie Hawn and Susan Sarandon. 

While such appearances are tough to plan, the Californian wineries need all the help they can get to spread their message and sell their wares. The industry is presently battling in the courts to overturn a Prohibition-era law which prevents the sale of alcohol across state lines, thus prohibiting wineries from shipping their products directly to out-of-state consumers. If the industry succeeds in its attempt then it could reshape the way alcohol is sold in the US, and viewers of The Terminal will be able to order cases of the wine from anywhere in the US directly from the winery. At present, only licensed wholesalers are allowed to import wine, beer and spirits.

The winemakers say consumers deserve wider choices at lower prices, while the State and wholesalers say taxes must be collected, and that alcohol must be kept from minors. At the moment, only a fraction of America’s 2,500 wineries are big enough to distribute their wines nationally; but wholesalers are reckoned by some accounts to mark up their wine by up to 25%.

The courts will decide on the issue in the autumn, but if they favour the winemakers then their product placement efforts are likely to redouble. After all, Hanks’s dinner companion in The Terminal is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and, who knows, after a bottle or two of Clos du Val, perhaps any guy’s gal would look that good.

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