I’ve written in qualified defense of product placement in the past, arguing that when it’s used to subsidize repetitive competition shows or to prop up low-rated but quality programming where the audience is aware that product placement is ongoing, there’s no real damage to the creative integrity of a program. But switching up Bond’s martini for a Heineken in Skyfall, the next installment of the storied franchise, is going too far.
First, it would be hard to make the case that adding a Heineken sponsorship is actually necessary to help the production cut costs or make some sort of margin. The Bond franchise may be the most reliable product in moviegoing history, resistant to downturns, odd plots, and dreadful names — Quantum of Solace made just $5 million less than the far superior Casino Royale. Unless Sam Mendes, who is directing Skyfall, is doing something truly bizarre with the movie, there’s probably no particular need to lock in a little margin to ensure that everything will be okay.
Second, this is a case where Bond’s original product choice actually matters — the scene where he comes up with the particular formula for it in Casino Royale is all about the delight a self-made man takes in tweaking the conventions and the formulas of the class he’s joined. That Bond drinks his martini shaken not stirred, and therefore slightly weaker, is a nice little chink in his masculine armor because it means he’s drinking a weaker cocktail (shaking makes the ice melt faster and dilutes the drink). Characters’ tastes can be and often are arbitrary in popular culture, but Bond’s are carefully curated and a very important projection of his personality that helps provide continuity from one actor to the next. Turning him into a Heineken drinker is a betrayal.
More to the point, why does it have to be Bond quaffing the brewski? If Felix Leiter is back — and one has to hope he will be given how wonderful Jeffrey Wright’s been in the role of Bond’s American counterpart — why not have him knock back a beer while Bond drinks his martini? You’d still get the positive association, and you could get it in a way that tweaks Bond’s martini-drinking a bit, plays up the difference between American and British styles. That actually seems like it would be smarter, and more self-aware. And one of the things that’s made Subway’s product placement in recent years so successful is that it acknowledges that the audience is fully aware of what they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve. It’s less about building desire for the product and more about generally positive associations for the brand, something that’s more sophisticated, but much more fun for viewers. Bond can be deadly serious, but as Casino Royale showed, he’s more fun when he’s aware of his own affectations, pretentions, and self-defense mechanisms. Heineken and Mendes might want to take a lesson.