Michael Bay, king of the summer movie spectacle, was in charm offensive mode on a trip to Shanghai last week, to promote his latest blockbuster Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
“One of my best memories is when I was a kid and I spent four months studying Chinese history. China has such a rich and amazing culture, as well as a great history,” he gushed to local media.
Of course, since becoming an adult Bay has switched enthusiasms: now he’s much more into giant robots. And very profitably so as far as the Transformers franchise is concerned. Dark of the Moon is also expected to prove another major hit when it is released in China this week.
The film, which features actor Shia LaBeouf and the Victoria’s Secret model-turned actress Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (she’s replacing Megan Fox) has already grossed $762 million worldwide.
And that’s just for ticket sales. The media has also identified 68 brands paying for product placement in the film, which has brought additional revenue totalling $400 million. As part of the commercial effort, audiences around the world will get to see four, less familiar brands on display from China.
Which ones? Metersbonwe clothing is first up, having debuted in the previous Transformers instalment, Revenge of the Fallen.
Moviegoers don’t have long to wait, with Shia Labeouf donning a Metersbonwe t-shirt just five minutes into the action.
Two of the country’s largest electronics makers are also big advertisers. TCL’s flat-panel televisions appear frequently, and Lenovo also manages a series of close-up shots for its computers. (The Chinese PC maker seems to have taken a page from Apple’s playbook by putting its logo prominently on the back of monitors).
But the most controversial brand to get the Transformers treatment is Yili milk, which was implicated in the melamine scandal in 2008.
Asian-American actor Ken Jeong is seen holding a carton of milk as he delivers the (hardly immortal) line: “I’m not talking to you until I finish my Shuhua milk.”
Shuhua is a brand owned by Yili Group. “Michael Bay was, like, what? The milk isn’t even distributed in the US,” says Liu Siru at Filmworks, a marketing company that helped the four Chinese firms get their products in the blockbuster.
Liu also told the China Daily that it took five months to come up with the milk-drinking scene, and that Yili had first wanted one of the robots (Bumblebee, for Transformers fans) to guzzle the drink.
Bay wasn’t keen – even children know robots don’t drink milk – so Yili buckled. “There are always conflicts between filmmakers and business,” Liu acknowledged sagely, “but I have to say, the final scenes are a delight.”
Product placement is a feature of Chinese films too, of course. Even the propaganda flick Beginning of the Great Revival – made to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party – is not immune. In one scene, the actor playing Mao Zedong accepts a gift of a gold Omega watch from his girlfriend (presumably to help him count down more accurately to judgement day for the bourgeoisie).
The camera zooms in and the Swiss luxury brand is visible to all.
This annoyed some cinemagoers, who felt that it portrayed Mao as materialistic. But the film’s directors denied accusations of product-placement.
“It is definitely not. It is a detail of our prop design,” says co-director Han Sanping. (By this WiC infers that the movie would have suffered without the scene’s inclusion).
Chinese audiences also have a history of irritation when it comes to more blatant product placement. Feng Xiaogang’s hit Aftershock, about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, tried to cash-in too, but was then criticised for attempting to profit from the disaster.
Reaction to the latest Transformers film couldn’t be more different. Chinese audiences feel a patriotic twinge when they see homegrown products in Western films, says the Economic Observer. That they feature at all will be taken as a sign of China’s growing economic importance.
“When I read that there are several Chinese product placements in Transformers 3 I felt so proud,” one netizen wrote on Sina Weibo. “It is so exciting to know that we have managed to place our products in a Hollywood blockbuster film. This is definitely a source of national pride!”
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