Why did Blade Runner’s product placements feel so organic in 1982 while Blade Runner 2049’s placements feel forced and painful in 2017? You can blame Blade Runner.
Blade Runner became a cult classic by asking what it means to be human. But the Ridley Scott film was also influential in the way it imagined the future of brands, pondering what it means to be a consumer-based culture. This vision of commercialization is on display in the new Blade Runner sequel in ways that again transcend typical films.
Until 1982’s Blade Runner, Hollywood’s imagined future was largely free of the commercial clutter of the modern day. From 1927’s Metropolis to 1976’s Logan’s Run, the future was largely seen as clean and free from obvious branding. Even dystopian films about consumer nightmares like Rollerball envisioned evil corporate control but not in a branded landscape. Indeed, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the Philip K. Dick science fiction novel on which Blade Runner is based, makes no mention of brands or advertising.
Audience reactions to director Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which opened on October 3rd, have been mixed, with many championing it as a worthy sequel. But far fewer are willing to defend the new film’s brand inclusions. Atari, Coca-Cola and Pan-Am once again have roles in the film, even though the latter has long since disappeared. French automaker Peugeot is prominently featured as the flying auto of the future. Atari is banking its comeback on its Blade Runner foundation.
Johnnie Walker even produced a futuristic bottle to cross-promote onscreen and in stores and the spirit’s corporate parent, Diageo, is emblazoned on Los Angeles’ skyline early in the film. And of course, there is no escaping Sony’s presence in the film, including a role for a futuristic Walkman; Sony’s studio arm is a production partner.
It still cracks me up that Blade Runner 2049 presents a future so bleak that Peugeot is the dominant car manufacturer.
— Tom Grochowiak (@TomGrochowiak) October 15, 2017
It’s hard to define exactly why the original Blade Runner’s brand inclusions worked so smoothly and why Blade Runner 2049’s do not. One reason is Blade Runner itself. For example, many have complained about the fact that Peugeot is such a prominent automaker in 2049. But in the original Blade Runner, one of the prominent auto brands was Alfa Romero. Did Blade Runner’s world change or did we change?
In 1982, Blade Runner—with its giant neon branded skylines—changed everything that came after. From 1989’s Back to the Future 2 to 2002’s Minority Report to 2004’s I, Robot to 2005’s The Island to 2013’s Elysium, Hollywood’s view of the future is littered with brand names.
Blade Runner (1982) even changed Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Despite being a sequel, Blade Runner 2049 cannot erase the audience’s memory of all that came after the 1982 original, much of with clunky and pushy product placements. Blade Runner 2049’s brand inclusions seem as tired in 2017 as Blade Runner’s placements seemed fresh in 1982. It’s not Blade Runner 2049’s fault; it’s Blade Runner’s fault.
Ironically, Blade Runner’s inclusion of real-life brands led to the infamous “Blade Runner Curse.” Many of the brand names featured in the 1982 original did not last long. Cusinart, RCA, Pan Am, Atari, Polaroid and Bell—all prominent in the original—declared bankruptcy or disintegrated.
Meanwhile, one place Blade Runner is again pushing the envelope is with its offscreen promotions. There were the online short films aimed at bringing everyone up to speed. But more importantly, there was Blade Runner 2049’s embrace of VR.
Artificial Intelligence and virtual reality play a big role in Blade Runner 2049. Offscreen, the film partnered with Facebook’s VR brand Oculus for virtual Blade Runner experiences. Then there is “Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab,” a short VR movie and gaming experience that has impressed critics.
Blade Runner 2049’s embrace of brands offscreen is notable for how it embraces VR onscreen in the form of holograms—the Sony-enabled Las Vegas-era Elvis and Frank Sinatra—along with the depiction of an AI brand in Joe’s virtual girlfriend Joi.