In an analysis of the top-100 grossing movies in each year from 1996 to 2009, researchers at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, lead by Elaina Bergamini, found that since tobacco companies were banned in 1998 from paying for product placement in movies, the appearances of specific tobacco brands in films fell from a range of 54 to 98 movies down to 22 by 2006. In that same period, the appearances of specific brands of alcohol that were visually distinguishable rose from 80 to 145 each year, or more than one appearance of a brand of alcohol per top-grossing movie. The regulations provide a strong reason for the decline in on-screen smoking, but there are cultural factors that explain that decline as well–and creative and financial ones that explain why alcohol branding replaced tobacco.
The reason that cigarette branding dropped is two-fold. First, with tobacco companies unable to pay for placement, movie studios had less incentive to work smoking into scenes in order to put together the overall budget for a product. And as smoking became less socially acceptable, it also became a different kind of social signal in movies as well. Where once, lighting up would have been a way to indicate that Barbara Stanwyck’s con woman character in The Lady Eve was an independent, modern lady–though not one of those pretentious dames who used a cigarette holder–now, smoking cigarettes is one of Robin Scherbatsky’s flaws on How I Met Your Mother, a signal perhaps of her foreignness, and to a certain extent, her lack of ladylike demeanor, since one of the ways she initially bro-ed out with Barney Stinson was by hitting a cigar bar with him. Limitations on cigarette advertising in many areas other than movies, and the social stigma attached to cigarette smoking by public health campaigns and regulations like Mayor Bloomberg’s New York City rules have meant that, independent of tobacco’s financial value to Hollywood, tobacco use, particularly in the form of cigarettes, no longer is the simple, clear character signifier it once was.
And in the absence of tobacco product placement, it makes sense that alcohol, or something like it, would rise up to provide those placement dollars, and to fill the niche that smoking once filled visually in movies. Cigarettes and alcohol provide similar functions in a movie or television scene: they provide set dressing, something for actors to do with their hands so they aren’t sitting passively in hangout scenes, and good opportunities for a break in speech that aren’t as time-consuming as biting and chewing foot might be. They also make sense as product placement opportunities because their logos and in some cases the physical product of a cigarette or alcohol bottle are visually distinctive. You can get a glowing refrigerator of Heineken bottles into a bar scene in a James Bond movie as was the case in Skyfall, or show a character using a product in a clear but passive endorsement without monkeying with dialogue to require a character to praise a product verbally. And alcohol can provide other branding opportunities even when it’s not being consumed on-screen: characters in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies not only drink Budweiser Classic, but the Budweiser Brewery was used to film scenes in the U.S.S. Enterprise’s engineering rooms. The critics’ screening I went to for Star Trek Into Darkness was filled in with fans who’d won admission through the beer brand.
Even if cigarettes became a model, and all of the vice industries were banned from paying for product placement in entertainment, I suspect the relatively heavy inclusion of alcohol in movies would continue, if only as a way to signal the characters are adults, and as real men, they drink beer, or as real women, they drink some sort of lady-approved cocktail (or, if cool, brown liquor). The social capital of alcohol remains high enough for it to be a useful signifier. And maybe instead of wanting to get all product placement out, we should be more concerned with getting certain kinds in more prominently. I could stand to see Trojan get some free advertising, for example, if movies could be persuaded that it’s as important to show couples using birth control once they get in to bed as it is to show them drinking to prove their grown-up and gender bona fides on their way to the bedroom.