Battle: Los Angeles is ostensibly about an alien invasion, but it's really about being a United States Marine. In fact, it's a Marine recruiting video, and a powerful one. No surprise there. For all the ink that's spilled on the product placement strategies of Apple, Coke, Audi or some other consumer brand, nobody — not even cigarette-makers — has harnessed the power of product placement like the Marines.
Battle: Los Angeles has some obvious product placement, including Casio watches, Landshark lager and, this being a Sony Pictures movie — just as we saw in The Social Network — there are Sony Vaios, lots of them. (Are we to believe US armed forces are all stocked with Sony Vaios?)
But the real product being sold in Battle: LA is the Marines.
The film follows a small unit from California's Camp Pendleton 2nd Battalion 5th Marines. But Camp Pendleton was more than just a plot point. Real Marines from Camp Pendleton participated in training Battle: LA's actors, while around 50 active duty Marines appear as extras in the film.
The Marines even have an officer whose job it is to liaise between the Corps and Hollywood to ensure that the filmmakers "protect the image of the Marine Corps." Those are the exact words of Lt. Col. Jason Johnson, the official Marine liaison to Battle: LA, to Nola.com.
When it comes to the Marines brand, filmmakers better follow what Johnson "suggests" or the US military will cease cooperation. Not only is that cooperation valuable from a storytelling perspective, but also from a bottom line one. Because Battle: Los Angeles closely followed Johnson's script notes and production suggestions, the film was to use a large number of (otherwise expensive or impossible to secure) Marine resources, such as MV-22 Ospreys aircraft, helicopters, and other vehicles — not to mention the Marines themselves. Maybe we should think of this as product "embedding" instead of placement.
Oddly enough, despite all its cooperation and Lt. Col. Johnson's close involvement in crafting the film, he is not mentioned anywhere in the Battle: Los Angeles credits. Cementing the cooperation between the film's producers and the Marines, the film premiered at Camp Pendleton. Addressing the crowd before the show, the film's star, Aaron Eckhart, said, "This is a movie about Marines… kicking ass. When people see this movie, we want to make sure that they love the Marines."
So while Battle: LA's screenwriter Chris Bertolini has described the project as a mesh of Black Hawk Down and Aliens, the film really has more in common, in both form and function, with a 1952 Korean War film.
In 1951, during the Korean War, the United States Pictures division of Warners Bros. coordinated with the US Marine Corps to release a filmed propaganda titled, yes, Retreat, Hell! Released in 1952, the film had the close cooperation of the Marine Corps, including script supervision and even the the use of, that's right, Camp Pendleton.
OK, call it productganda then. Battle: LA features one bit of Marine lore injected into its dialogue that is tremendously telling with regard to the Hollywood's history of product placing the Marine Corps.
In a key scene scene, our Marine staff sergeant hero explains to a group of civilians the significance of the "Retreat, Hell!" motto yelled by his unit. "Retreat, Hell!," he explains, is Marine legend from a World War I battle during which a Marine officer said after being ordered to retreat, "Hell, we just got here."
Battle: Los Angeles's plot even mirrors the plotline of the 1952 film. Both begin with Marine operations against an enemy that go horribly wrong, with our Marine Corps heros are forced into a desperate attempt to fall back to safety, only to regroup and make another push. Both films end with the Marines, tired and wounded but sucking it up to head off to another battle. Both films even contain a sub-plot about Marine brothers, one of whom dies.
In an interview years later, Korean War veteran Donald Eaton spoke of how, after seeing Retreat Hell! in 1952, half his friends rushed out to join the Marine Corps. Fast forward to Battle: LA's opening weekend and the following tweets:
One thing that the Marine Corps understands about the advertising practice maybe better than any other "brand" is that successful product placement can still be "bad." In both Battle: LA and Retreat Hell!, the audience watches numerous Marines get killed in action.
It would seem unlikely, but these deaths are less of a concern for the Marines than maintaining the honor of the Corps. It might seem counterintuitive that possible death would be in any way an acceptable part of a recruiting tool, but it turns out that a far less acceptable recruiting tool is depicting fear of of possible death.
This antithetical consumption of war films has been known for a long time. Despite messages that should make military service seem as unappealing as possible, movies such as Full Metal Jacket, Three Kings, and Blackhawk Down only serve to goose militiamania.
Speaking to The New York Times, Matt Swofford, author of Jarhead, a book-turned-movie about Marines in the first Gulf War, said ”Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended. . . . The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.’‘
The military itself fully understands how powerful its product placements are. Proof of this comes in the book Generation Kill, the story of a Marine battalion in Iraq in 2003, Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright notes that the Marine unit in which he was embedded was shown Black Hawk Down at Kuwaiti Camp Mathilda on the eve of joining combat operations in Iraq.
For all the brands featured in Battle: Los Angeles, including the Marine Corps, visit the Brandcameo database.