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An Insider's View of BlackBerry's Clandestine Role in Zero Dark Thirty

Posted by Abe Sauer on March 11, 2013 11:44 AM

Mention espionage and product placement and one name comes to mind: Zero Dark Thirty. Sure, Skyfall's James Bond used a Sony Experia and, in the other 2012 CIA thriller to feature waterboarding, Safe House, the agency man used an iPhone. Yet, in last year's true life tale spygame, the heroes killed Osama Bin Laden with the help of BlackBerry.

It's a placement the brand was involved with. But unlike other product placements—even some inside Zero Dark Thirty—BlackBerry faces a paradox when it comes to capitalizing on its role in Hollywood's definitive account of killing America's most hated enemy.

While there are many obvious details that Zero Dark Thirty suspiciously avoided, such as substituting the fictional Pakistan station chief "Joseph Bradley" for the real life Jonathan Banks, the production is also credited with paying obsessive attention to the smaller details. A precise replica of the bin Laden compound was built for Zero Dark's SEALs to storm. The film's SEALs wore four-prong GPNVG-18s, cutting-edge night-vision goggles favored by current "operators." And then there were the BlackBerry phones.

Director Kathryn Bigelow's team reached out to the entertainment marketing group at BlackBerry (back when it was still Research In Motion) to provide the production with period-accurate BlackBerry devices. Over the decade covered by the film, BlackBerry phones, especially  the once-popular 9000 series, can be seen in use by Maya (Jessica Chastain), George (Mark Strong), and, once he's back in D.C., Dan (Jason Clarke).

"The production sought to keep brand usage within the film organic, and specifically chose a partnership with BlackBerry as it is widely known that government officials—even President Obama—use BlackBerry smartphone devices due to their high level of security and business functionality," said Stacy Jones, Founder and CEO of Hollywood Branded, who helped arrange the placement. A placement, she added, that BlackBerry did not pay for.

It's a common misconception that product placement happens only in films focused on box office receipts and not "art" or critical praise. A perfect example is 2012's heralded Silver Linings Playbook, which saw placements of brands from Budweiser to Hellmann's mayonnaise.

A recent Atlantic magazine piece stated there are "fact-or-fiction questions about nearly every scene in the movie" in Zero Dark Thirty. These questions could include BlackBerry's role. Not that there are many answers. The CIA may have been willing to work with the producers to provide specific details about the hunt for Bin Laden. But when I asked its public affairs office if BlackBerry's roles in the film were accurate, the CIA declined to comment.

When it comes to the higher profile published accounts of the raid and killing, Mark Owen and Kevin Mauer's "No Easy Day" does not once mention BlackBerry. Mark Bowden's book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, only mentions BlackBerry once, when it identifies the device as how Obama first got word of the operation.

Many probably remember the brouhaha surrounding Obama's BlackBerry, a presidential endorsement that is, in part, credited with a major spike for RIM stock in early 2009. There is even a humorous book titled Obama's BlackBerry. Unfortunately for BlackBerry, Obama is now more likely to be mentioned alongside his iPad, a version of which the National Security Agency reportedly souped up for him.

Jones calls BlackBerry's placement in Zero Dark Thirty "less of an in-your-face over the top endorsement than a gentle recap of historically correct usage, and a glimpse into the fact that BlackBerry has been there during some of our most important times of recent history."

Putting an exact dollar value on product placements remains an art form. But Front Row Analytics, a division of Front Row Marketing Services, used its proprietary valuation formula to calculate BlackBerry's branding value from the Zero Dark Thirty to be $1,500,745 as of Jan. 31.

With the valuation, Front Rom Marketing Services SVP Eric Smallwood pointed out that Apple was at a per-share low of $13.63 ($4.57 split adjusted) in January 1998, the same year Apple appeared in You've Got Mail. Smallwood said that role demonstrated Apple "was a versatile and establish brand and product and wasn’t going anywhere." Calling BlackBerry's placement "mission accomplished," Smallwood concluded, "They are showing that they are a key part of a portrayal of American and World history and offer a reliable product that people in the most dangerous of circumstances can rely on to accomplish their mission."

Of course, the brand faces a paradox: how to say something as self-promotional as "BlackBerry helped kill bin Laden" without saying something as self-promotional as "BlackBerry helped kill bin Laden." A cotton candy Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romcom Zero Dark Thirty is not. And it is too late to pay screenwriter Mike Boal to expand the line to "I'm the motherfu**er that found that place… with the help of my BlackBerry."

BlackBerry is not in the same position as gunmakers who rushed marketing messages with "SEALs" and "SEAL Team Six" following news of the killing. For example, just days after the news of Bin Laden's death, Beretta released an ad congratulating the SEALs, and pointing out that the brand "intimately collaborated with members of [SEAL Team Six] during the initial design phase of what would become the venerable M9."

Hecker & Koch, the maker of the HK416 rifle that ultimately killed Bin Laden (and was used in the film), did not promote its role. It didn't need to, because numerous bloggers and magazines did it for them. Popular Mechanics published a piece titled "Face Time With the HK416—The Gun That Killed Bin Laden." Even the New Yorker's much-shared chronicle of "What happened that night in Abbottabad" credits the Heckler and Koch brand.

Tech bloggers and BlackBerry fan forums did not similarly help out BlackBerry.

It's noteworthy that Zero Dark is not BlackBerry's only product placement project. It's not even its only product placement project involving the now-infamous, "loner" female CIA agent known as "Maya" in ZD30. Hollywood Branded's team has also worked with the producers of the Showtime series Homeland. Hard to mistake for reality, it's a show that Nada Bakos, a leader of the CIA’s Zarqawi Operations team and targeting officer who recently called Homeland fun "because it’s a fantasy." And for what it's worth, Homeland has depicted BlackBerry phones using Skype, a feature only now available with the new Z10.

Not that there is any downside for BlackBerry. "Any time a product can be placed in this type of venue, it's good," according to Karen Post, author of Brand Turnaround. She admitted capitalizing on the placement "beyond direct chest pounding" would be a challenge. But she added, "This move is just one of many consumer connections that the BlackBerry brand needs to turn it around."

Whatever BlackBerry's future, the brand is forever written into what, for better or worse, will become America's most well known historical record of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Like waterbording, exactly what that role is may never be known.

For more on Hollywood's brandcameos, don't miss the 2013 Brandcameo Product Placement Awards

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