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And the Oscar for best junk-food ‘brand-cameo’ performance is ….

If there were an Oscar category for best performance by a food and beverage in a movie, it would have to include even more nominees than this year’s best-picture category.
But you could bet all your Oscar pool money that the winning product would be

If there were an Oscar category for best performance by a food and beverage in a movie, it would have to include even more nominees than this year’s best-picture category.

But you could bet all your Oscar pool money that the winning product would be one that’s high in sugar, salt and fat and low in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

In a study published online Monday in the medical journal Pediatrics, a team of researchers from Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire found that 69 percent of the 200 popular movies they studied (the top 20 box-office hits for each year in the decade 1996-2005) featured at least one food, beverage and/or food retail establishment. (The average number of brand placements in those movies was nine.)

And — surprise! surprise! — the brands that showed up most frequently among the 1,180 identified were sugar-sweetened beverages, salty snacks and candy. As for the food retail establishments featured, two-thirds were fast-food restaurants. (McDonald’s and Burger King led the pack.)

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Under the radar
What really did surprise me about this study was that it’s apparently the first time that researchers have taken a comprehensive look at food and beverage product placement in popular movies. We’ve long known about how calorie-dense, nutrient-poor products are advertised during children’s TV programming — and how such advertising detrimentally affects kids’ food choices and eating habits.

Yet, meanwhile, under the radar, food manufacturers have been stealthily placing their foods and other products with nil nutritional value on the big screen.

You’d think someone would have started looking at this issue long before now. After all, it’s been almost 30 years since the release of the movie “E.T.,” which famously featured Reese’s Pieces.

As the study’s authors noted, “In the 3 months immediately after the film’s release, brand sales of Reese’s Pieces increased 65%. This demonstrated the potential power of product placement in the movies as a marketing tool.”

That potential was certainly not lost on manufacturers of sugary-salty-fatty foods. Those companies must have found the big screen particularly attractive as a means of reaching kids as they came under increasing fire for hawking their junk food to children on TV.

“Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have long-standing commitments not to advertise their soft drink products during children’s television programming,” the study’s authors noted, “yet sugar-sweetened beverage products from these companies regularly appeared in movies, especially those rated for children and adolescents.”

Indeed, sugar-sweetened beverages made up the largest proportion (25 percent) of all the brands that appeared in the movies studied, whereas other research has shown that they make up only 5.6 percent and 12.3 percent of the ads that appear on children’s and adolescent TV programming, respectively.

More details
Here are a few other interesting findings from the study:

  • Brand placements were more likely to occur in PG-13 and R-rated movies rather than in G and PG movies. But one-third of G-rated movies and more than half (58.5 percent) of PG-rated movies had brand appearances.
  • Comedies, drama and horror films had more brand placements than family animations and science fiction/fantasy films. Comedies tended to have the most placements from all three categories studied (food, beverage, and food establishment).
  • Movies that grossed less than $200 million had more brand placements than those that grossed more than that amount.
  • Six companies (PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, McDonald’s, Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, and Burger King) accounted for 45 percent of all brand placements.

Why it matters
This study raises troubling questions because of the growing obesity problem in U.S. children and adolescents and because of other research that has demonstrated the considerable impact movies can have on children’s behavior.

As the authors of this study point out, the existing voluntary pledge from leading food companies to “shift the mix of advertising messaging directed at children to encourage healthier dietary choices and lifestyle choices” is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t go far enough.

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“Movies provide an avenue through which companies are marketing foods of low nutritional value to consumers, including children and adolescents, who may not even be aware of the advertising,” the authors concluded.

NB: The website brandchannel.com keeps track of brand placements in many popular films, and issues tongue-in-cheek (I think) “brandcameo” Product Placement Awards each year. You can go there to find out how many brands have made cameo appearances in recent films. Although some 2009 films (“A Christmas Carol” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) didn’t have any brand placements, most apparently did. Here, for example, is the stunningly long list of brands that appear in the PG-rated 2009 movie “Mall Cop”:

Aéropostale, ALDO, Au Bon Pain, Bath and Body Works, Bose, Brookstone, Budweiser, Caché, Champs Sports, Coca-Cola, Crabtree & Evelyn, Dasani, Dunkin’ Donuts, EA Sports, F.Y.E., Fender, Ford, Ford Mustang, Hello Kitty, Kay Jewelers, Lacoste, L’Occitane, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, McDonald’s, Motorola, Mystic Tan, New Jersey Devils, Orange Julius, Perfectmatch.com, Pixy Stix, Rainforest Cafe, Rock Band, Segway, Sephora, Snickers, Sony, Sony PlayStation, Sony VAIO, Sunglass Hut, Talbots, The Limited, The Sharper Image, The Sims, Uno, Verizon, Victoria’s Secret, Williams-Sonoma, Zales.

Feel free to nominate your “favorite” 2009 brandcameo appearance in the comments section below.