Product placement is finally old enough to boast “legends” of the industry. One of those legends is Brad Brown, the man behind things like the futuristic Pepsi Perfect in Back to the Future 2 and that Wayne’s World scene. You know the one.
Brown worked in product placement in Hollywood for decades. At first he represented Pepsi as head of the Pepsi-Cola Entertainment Group, landing it roles in iconic hits like Big and Flashdance. Eventually he partnered with Jim Davie to create Davie Brown Entertainment, which today is known as The Marketing Arm.
brandchannel had the opportunity to chat with Brown about the early days of product placement.
brandchannel: A recent piece on Vulture blamed soda brands in the 1980s for the explosion of product placement in modern movies. As somebody who launched Pepsi Entertainment Group and was working on some of those placements, would you call that accurate?
Brad Brown: It’s always easy to blame the leaders who have done it the most—and hopefully better. Part of the reason [soft drink brands] are easy to single out is that they are the easiest things to place. They’re small. They work in bars, picnics and restaurants—really almost anywhere. It was so successful because it could go almost anywhere and it didn’t even have to be specified in the script.
You have to remember that it’s a simple, natural thing to hold a soft drink. Think of any episode of Seinfeld where they weren’t holding or drinking water or a soft drink or something. They would go to the refrigerator and get a soft drink and hold it or drink it for the whole scene. Now, during college I worked as an extra in acting roles, and I was always aware that holding a drink was relaxing. Actors are nervous and having something to do with your hands really calms them down. I watch a lot of Turner Classics films and everyone is smoking. Of course, that was promoted and tobacco companies were giving them all the free cigarettes they wanted. But it also did help actors give more relaxed performances.
brandchannel: Besides Pepsi, what have been your favorite product placement projects?
Brad Brown: One of the most effective ones was BMW. My company also handled them after we directly handled Pepsi. It was the Mini Cooper and The Italian Job. That ended up being an ongoing, hour-and-a-half commercial for those cars—and when you have Charlize Theron and Mark Wahlberg driving your cars around like that, that’s very effective. And the timing was so effective. At the time it was just out that BMW was going to be offering those new Mini Cooopers and they got so many people signing up to get those cars, it created a waiting list. BMW had to increase its production. And, frankly, the cars were the stars of the film. And it was no easy thing. We gave the film a number of mechanics because they cars were breaking down from everything they put them through. They originally wanted money for [the placement] but we told them, “We’re going to give you 32 cars, plus mechanics full time. And that’ll be it.” It’s not often you are in that kind of a bargaining position.
brandchannel: What developments in product placement are you interested in today? And with the rise Netflix, and other commercial free streaming options, will there becoming too much of a reliance on product placement?
Brad Brown: I’m following with great interest digital product placement in classic films and TV shows, and I’ve been reading about it and what’s available. I’m not sure how many are doing it yet but I think there are going to be a lot of legal issues there—trademarks and copyright protections. I know there are some companies that can do it and we’ve heard about it for years.
I’ve read some studies that show it’s more effective if you run a commercial during a show that has that product in it. It’s a major change though. I go back to when no products were on shows. Back then each network had a standards and practices department that didn’t allow it. Their reasoning was that any products in the show would be competing with sales of advertising. For example, a beer advertiser would maybe cancel an ad buy if they saw a competitor’s product on the show. That changed, in large part during Seinfeld, which made a lot of fun of products and argued that they couldn’t do the jokes with generic products.
brandchannel: What would you tell somebody today who is trying to get into the business? A lot of brands are going direct to making their own movies. Did you ever try to do that at Pepsi?
Brad Brown: Follow it carefully. There are a lot of people doing it, some better than others obvious. But you have got to be here. You’ve got to be in Hollywood because the relationships are so important. That’s what I did more than anything. I did a lot of research on my competitor at Coca-Cola, who had been doing it for 20 years. He did everything by phone with the prop masters—and many of them never met him in person.
My way was to give them something extra. If they were having a wrap party, then more for that. Also, for producers, directors and actors with kids, I’d help with a sweet 16 party or something like that. I was always there for them and Coke was not at that time. That’s all changed. The guy who represents Coke now used to work for me and he does a good job.
We didn’t want to produce movies then. But we did want to help. Pepsi had blocked funds from sales in the Iron Curtain countries of the time. And we couldn’t get that money out of the country. So I asked, “Can I use that?” And so with that we helped fund movies in some of those countries. We’d say, “We have $20,000 and we will help with your movie if you just put us in it.”
We had a lot of offers over the years to help produce films but the company then was not interested in doing that.
brandchannel: You were heading Pepsi in Hollywood during that famous Wayne’s World product placement scene. How did that go down? Was anyone worried about that?
Brad Brown: You have to remember that it was a story point. When Wayne got the show and became a big star he started saying he wasn’t going to sell out or do commercials. Then Rob Lowe told him he could do the ads or go back to his basement in Aurora. And then the next scene was Garth holding up Pizza Hut and he had everything Reebok on. At that time I was representing Reebok, too. And the scene after that was sweet old Mike Myers talking about the “choice of a new generation.” What make it great was that it was a story point and it worked like a punchline.
I wasn’t aware of it until that scene came on. At the time Pepsi had a new chief marketing officer and we decided we’d do a movie. I suggested Wayne’s World since it had just opened. So here I’m sitting with my new boss in the movie. And then that scene. I wasn’t aware of that scene until I saw it. The boss thought it was wonderful. He had come from Burger King and product placement was not that well known at that time. Not like today.
I couldn’t have planned it any better.