The unsubtle art of product placement has been present in film dating all the way back to the era of the silents. As of late, however, people have grown so tired of seeing real-life products or brand names being painfully evident that it becomes the first topic to discuss, as opposed to the plot or characters. (A recent example is Man of Steel, in which Ma Kent works at the local Sears, per her prominently displayed nametag, which she’s seen wearing at home.) Product placement by itself is not automatically a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s used subtly enough by a filmmaker to not be obnoxious; using a fake generic name for Google or a similar search engine, for example, can often be worse than seeing a character just go to Google. On the flip side, some filmmakers or actors are so blatant about the product placement that it becomes satire; you’d have to look to TV for the prominent examples, such as David Cross hawking Burger King on Arrested Development or Tina Fey on 30 Rock looking into the camera and asking for “our money” after bragging about her cool new cell phone. To take money from sponsors and using their products in your film is a delicate balance, in short; being too obvious may bother audiences.
Pixar has not been immune to the allure of product placement, but it often has avoided the pitfalls many other animation studios slip into. One recurring bit of veiled product placement is when the company references Apple and its products, a tip of the hat to the late Steve Jobs, who was one of its co-founders; it’s not for nothing that Eve in WALL-E is sleek, white, and has a “face” much like an Apple product’s. But actual product placement, as well as references to real-life figures, has cropped up mostly in the Cars films. The cars themselves are notably “real,” as Sally is referred to as a Porsche. And then there are cameo performances from Darrell Waltrip, Bob Costas, Jay Leno, and more, their character names only slightly tweaked from their real ones, as if they were cameoing on The Flintstones. But these are outliers in Pixar’s filmography; the filmmakers have, instead, created many fake company names, in part to build their own interconnected universe. You can always count on Pixar’s films to have a certain number of Easter eggs, from A113 (a classroom number where many Pixar animators studied at CalArts) to the colorful ball that Luxo, Jr. deflated in the 1980s short of the same name. Specific to this topic, of course, there’s the Pizza Planet truck.
First seen in Toy Story, Pizza Planet is one of a handful of fake companies Pixar created, simply so they wouldn’t have Andy and his toys going to Pizza Hut or Domino’s Pizza or the like. While it’s true that many films incorporating fake versions of clearly real companies or brands can be annoying, Pixar’s done the opposite over the years by turning the presence of the Pizza Planet delivery truck into a running gag. How, for example, could the vehicle make an appearance in Brave, a film set centuries before the invention of the automobile? Simple enough: a wood carving, in the witch’s hut. The truck doesn’t need to show up in Brave, but one imagines that it becomes something of a playful challenge for Pixar’s animators, as much as it is for us in trying to spot this Easter egg. Of course, it could be argued that Pixar has given into some self-reflexive form of product placement, as when characters from one film appear in another; for example, a Buzz Lightyear lunchbox is placed among WALL-E’s treasure trove of knick-knacks. But it’s cases like this or even the usage of Barbie as a character in the Toy Story franchise when Pixar sets itself apart from its competitors: it utilizes product placement, because the story requires it, not because they needed the money.
Take, as a counterpoint, the case of the recent animated film Free Birds. (Warning: spoilers for the film follow, but a more useful warning would be to encourage you to avoid seeing this film at all costs.) In fairness, the basic premise of this movie is only slightly more ridiculous than that of, say, Ratatouille. One is about turkeys going back to the first Thanksgiving to take themselves off the menu of this massive feast; the other is about a rat who desires to be a chef in one of the finest restaurants in one of the foodiest cities in the world. The concepts are nuts; the executions are, of course, vastly different. In Free Birds, the product placement comes early and comes often: the lead turkey, voiced by Owen Wilson, is pardoned by the President on Thanksgiving and becomes the First Daughter’s pet. So he hangs out at Camp David, watching a made-up telenovela and ordering pizza from Chuck E. Cheese, as seen in some of the pizza boxes the turkey gobbles his food from. There are also references to Fossil and Auntie Anne’s, but let’s put it this way: if you are wondering how the turkeys who travel in time could ever convince the settlers to eat something other than turkey on Thanksgiving, consider the usage of Chuck E. Cheese pizza in the first act as this movie’s Chekhov’s gun: it appears in the first act solely so it can become important in the third act. (None of this is made up. It all happens in the film.)
Ratatouille, on the other hand, avoids product placement, even though it takes place in a real city and deals with food. There are, no doubt, references to real-world products, but nothing more explicit than the late Auguste Gusteau potentially becoming the face of a line of frozen-food dishes. The presence of the real world is apparent, even in a film whose hook is outrageous. It may be unfair to compare Free Birds and Ratatouille beyond the connection of animals and food interacting in some way, but the way these movies employ or acknowledge the real world is instructive. Utilizing product placement is not a black mark on a film; what matters is how the filmmaker or studio utilizes the specific product. Take, for instance, an upcoming drama set almost entirely before the age of computers. One scene does take place in the present; in that scene, the camera pans over an Apple desktop computer, the logo given an egregious spotlight. It is not important to the story that the character in this scene owns a computer, or that it’s an Apple. We don’t need to see the brand name or logo, but simply to get a bit of cash, the filmmakers chose to let us see that ubiquitous symbol.
With the exception of the Cars films, which are oddly more egregious in using well-known TV personalities than in actual product placement, Pixar has sidestepped this niggling issue almost entirely. Sometimes, it’s because the nature of the story doesn’t allow for any kind of product placement—having real products in Monsters, Inc. wouldn’t make much sense. Sometimes, as mentioned above, it’s because the real-life products fit the story. Not every toy in the Toy Story franchise existed in real life before the 1995 film, but Slinky Dog and Mr. Potato Head were preexisting properties. None of the films in the trilogy dwell on them as products; instead, they are characters who happen to be based on real inanimate objects. And in the first Toy Story, when the toy manufacturers Playskool and Mattel are referenced, they’re done so in a conversation whose tone befits a bored breakroom chat between co-workers: “I’m from Mattel. Well, I’m not really from Mattel. I’m actually from a smaller company that was purchased in a leverage buyout.” Arguably, countless children walked out of these movies wanting to own Sheriff Woody or Buzz Lightyear, but that’s not because the movies literally hawk toys as if they were feature-length carnival barkers. (Granted, there is an ad for the Buzz Lightyear action figure in Toy Story, but that’s used as the catalyst for Buzz’s harsh realization of his place in the world.)
Pixar has, almost always, found the right balance between being excessive in using real products and being excessive in using clearly fake versions of real products. And by doing so, they’ve allowed their films a heightened sense of relatability. It’s OK, for example, that Al’s Toy Barn doesn’t exist in the real world. Such a small-town toy store is allowed to feel real because of its design, the way the rows in the store are set up, and even how it’s referred to in ads. (In the first Toy Story, there’s a passing reference to Al’s Toy Barn at the end of the aforementioned Buzz Lightyear ad, with the most bored voiceover artist possible, which contributes to the localization of this world. The national spot preceding it is voiced by a deliberately hyped-up Penn Jillette, but the “tri-county area” voiceover guy sounds less enthused.) This, in short, may be the difference between the way a film like Free Birds uses product placement versus a Pixar film’s usage: one doesn’t seem interested in building a world in which real and fake products coexist for creative reasons (or building a logical world at all), whereas the other is made by people who need a good reason to use actual brands.
The mere phrase “product placement” is enough to make some people shudder. But this concept, one relying on art to transmit commercial messages, is not as bad as it seems, as long as there’s good reason within the art. In the case of Free Birds, mentioning Chuck E. Cheese serves no creative purpose, even leaving aside the mind-boggling deus ex machina ending in which a comically stoned-looking delivery boy brings pizza to the Thanksgiving feast in 1621. The boxes could say “PIZZA” or nothing at all. That they specify a familiar brand—and one that delivers, much to many people’s shock—is proof that the product placement was used to help boost the budget ever so slightly. (The worst offender in the animated-with-food genre is the supposedly execrable Foodfight!, set in a grocery store where characters like Mr. Clean fight alongside fictional characters against the onslaught of a generic brand taking over.) Pixar has, until this point, managed not to wallow in the usage of real products or brand names to the detriment of its films. (Being fair to the Cars movies, the product placement within isn’t the root problem with the franchise.) It’s rare for product placement to be the root of any film’s problems. It’s a symptom, not a cause; it’s an indicator of the real issue: that the filmmakers have chosen the easy way out and allowed their creativity to lapse.