Friday, November 24, 2006

Hey, wasn't that Richard Branson?

Sweetie and I went to see Casino Royale last night. With most movies, I’d wait for the DVD – movie theaters remind me of commercial air travel, except that you never go anywhere, nobody brings you anything, and the staff don’t seem old enough to drive – but this was different. This was James Bond, brothers and sisters. Another ripping tale of hot lookin’ people saving the world with sex, violence, power toys, nice clothes and cool brands. Another rendition of the timeless good-versus-evil story, in which evil exclusively buys no-name.

Few marketing tactics draw as much sneering cynicism from consumers as product placement does. It’s reached the point where just being able to recognize a brand in a movie or television show indicts its presence in the story. People think that paying to have your brand on screen is a bit cheap and desperate. The marketing equivalent of having to hire a date for the office Christmas party.

So how does the Bond franchise get away with it?

Well, for one thing, it’s open about it. Next to the choice of Daniel Craig as Bond, the most reported Casino Royale story was the $100 million dollars paid by Heineken, Ford, Smirnoff, Sony, Sony Ericsson and Omega to be in the movie. For another, the movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, artistically speaking, so nobody can bellow ‘sellout’. Especially not after 21 films. And for another, Bond knows its own brand. The stuff 007 uses is pretty much the stuff the real guy would use, with the possible exception of the jarring Casino Royale scene in which Craig desperately tries to use his own coolness to overcome the dorky Ford rental car they put him in when he arrives in the Bahamas. (So kryptonite-like was the effect of the blue oval on Bond’s charisma that Sweetie actually exclaimed right out loud, “Why’s he driving a Ford!?”)

Which brings me to the thing I love the best about Bond and his brands: They need him more than he needs them.

With a lot of product placement, paid and otherwise, brands get brought to the table at least partly because of their cultural meaning. Put a Mac on someone’s desk or have them drive a Volvo or peer at a Blackberry or order a Stoli, and you say something about the character. It’s a convenient silent language for the filmmaker to use to add information and dimension without adding time or words to the script. Having your brand in a Bond film feels different, more like an honour. You just have to believe that Omega hopes Craig will do for its Seamaster what Connery did for the Rolex Submariner. Or that the guys in Dearborn are praying Casino Royale will redeem their loony investment in the Premier Automotive Group brands (which include Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo).

This womanizing sociopath actually has the power to make brands cool.

Which makes him something more than a brand himself. It makes him a metabrand. And, in that sense, a model for the way we all hope we choose brands: To sometimes declare what we’re about, but never to make us who we are. And maybe every once in awhile to incite coolness ourselves by, as Vesper Lynd said of Bond’s tailored suit, wearing them “with disdain.”

Yup, brand-wise, it was a good night for cars, cell phones, computers, watches, booze and the edgy new Bond himself.

In fact, the only brand manager I wouldn’t want to be today is the guy who did the deal to supply wicker chairs. I bet he’s got some explaining to do.

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