A little less than a decade ago, one of my first on-air jobs in TV was a weekly movie review segment for the local Fox affiliate in San Antonio. As part of the gig, I’d get invites to various media screenings around town of whatever big movie happened to be coming out that week. The marketing company putting on the screening would save a few rows for reviewing press, then open up the rest of the seats to folks who won tickets from radio giveaways (or wherever they could find them) – just to get a little extra “word of mouth” publicity. Online piracy via movie theater recordings was just starting to become a big issue, so we were often told to leave our cell phones in the car or they would be confiscated. We’d sit, the previews would showcase three to four upcoming releases from whatever studio was hosting the screening, and then the feature would begin.
On our way out after the show, an employee from the marketing company would ask each of us for a little blurb or a review about what we thought about the film. They would remind us to tell friends to go see the film on Facebook, or on that new “Twitter” thing, if we happened to have a profile.
What a difference a social media revolution makes.
Last night, I went to my first press screening in about five years. It was for “The Secret Life of Pets”, the latest animated film from Illumination Studios (of Minions fame) about some lovable CGI companions’ hijinks when their masters leave for the day. Not only was my cell phone not confiscated at the door, but I was encouraged to snap a selfie in the theater and post it to Instagram and Twitter with movie and location-appropriate hashtags. This also entered me into a drawing to win some awesome “The Secret Life of Pets” merchandise – including dog toys and t-shirts. Free t-shirt connoisseur that I am, I promptly complied.
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(Source: Twitter screenshot)

Naturally, my exuberance was too much for the judges to resist, and my name was called. However, it was not the only name called. In fact, every person in the theater who snapped a selfie won a t-shirt. After they got their swag, THE ENTIRE THEATER was invited down to grab t-shirts. Minutes later, the marketing team had hundreds of people poised to market their client’s film right on their chests, and dozens of people who had already promoted it online (myself included) – before the movie even started!
Then, instead of the usual couple of previews before the film, we were instead given a 30-second commercial for Xfinity home security systems using characters from the movie.
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(Source: YouTube)

Following a few more cinematic previews, we were treated to “Mower Minions”, a new short from the “Minions” franchise featuring everyone’s favorite animated nerf pellets hatching a diabolical scheme to mow enough yards to buy a blender they saw on a home shopping network. (By this point, the fact that the minions’ obsession with finding an evil mastermind to follow had been replaced by the desire to consume products sold to them through on-screen advertising had become alarmingly appropriate.)
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(Source: YouTube)

As if to illustrate (animate?) that point once the movie began, one of the characters in “The Secret Life of Pets” turns out to be Peanut the chihuahua, a literal walking product placement for GoPro. GoPro, like Xfinity, appears to have a collaborative marketing campaign with the film to promote its release.
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(Source: YouTube)

This also appears to be Peanut’s only purpose in the movie. He doesn’t appear in the credits on IMDb, and the only speaking line I recall him having is responding to a “did you get that?” from another character after they both witness the film’s grumpy, chunky, scene-stealing cat Chloe (played by Lake Bell at her sarcastic best) go slip-sliding through a party table, only to wind up tarred-and-feathered in cheese puffs. The video subsequently goes viral on YouTube in the film – yet another product placement cameo.

Peanut is also a character that embodies one of the film’s major flaws – it is surprisingly all over the place, especially with a premise as simple as “pets do the darnedest things when we’re not looking.” The best moments in the film are early on, when Louis C.K.’s character “Max” charmingly describes his relationship with his owner – and a typical work day from a dog’s point of view, which mainly consists of pining for her to come home. (The fact that Max’s owner is a single millennial hipster who can somehow afford a very nice-looking apartment in the middle of Manhattan did cause some eyebrow-raising from some members of the audience – “what does she do when she’s away at work?”) The actual “secret life” portion of the film winds up being not nearly as interesting – relying far too much on action set pieces, ludicrous car chases and throwaway characters like the aforementioned Peanut. He probably could have been cut without being missed, so I suspect Peanut was shoehorned into the film after the initial script as part of the marketing agreement with GoPro.

For those familiar with the marketing world, none of these tactics should come as a surprise. These days, it seems every cause, product or celeb has its own hashtag(s), complete with customized emojis and locators. Direct marketing through giveaways and prizes has been a tried-and-true method of spreading brand loyalty since the invention of the koozie. Product placement in cinema was around long before the talkies. There’s nothing particularly nefarious, subliminal or underhanded about any of these techniques. In fact, consumers seem to find them more desirable than the traditional “ad” format, which prevents them from enjoying the content they want by monopolizing their attention. Sure, product placement undercuts the filmmaker’s ability to create a piece of pure “art” without catering to investors or corporate interests, but considering “The Secret Life of Pets” cost $125 million to make and has already made $30 million in overseas releases before opening in 4,100 screens this weekend, I highly doubt most of the people involved in the film are losing any sleep over something as ethereal as artistic integrity.

However, witnessing the sudden explosion of these marketing methods into the previously untapped (and mostly unknown) market of press screenings for children’s movies did come off as slightly unnerving, even to someone who now practices many of these tactics for a living. As the film progressed, I found myself wondering more and more if my fellow moviegoers realized just how much we (and our children) were being pushed towards purchasing and promoting certain products through our entertainment choices, or if we, like the minions we love to laugh at, were content to spend our days on quixotic quests to scrounge up enough change for the next banana blender that appeared on screen.

When he’s not helping companies navigate the digital marketing landscape as Communications Manager for esd, JT Street enjoys (over)analyzing the role advertising plays in the human experience, which, he’s been told, makes it difficult to watch movies with him sometimes.