Citizen Kane — Brought to You by Coca-Cola

It's hard to come up with a better encapsulation of capitalism's dreary imprint on culture than the latest innovation in the field of advertising: the retroactive insertion of product placement ads into classic movies.

A scene from Orson Welles's Citizen Kane with Coca-Cola bottles inserted.

Shrouded in darkness, an unknown figure rigs an explosive device and places it in the trunk of a nearby car. Moments later, a couple gets inside, and we follow the vehicle through the bustling, winding streets of a seedy town on the US-Mexico border. Soon, our perspective becomes fixed on another couple, who seem to be wandering carefree through the crowds and past the local establishments. Both pairs arrive at a checkpoint and are seen bantering with customs officials. “Are you an American citizen, miss?” one asks the woman in the car as she complains, “I’ve got this ticking noise in my head. . .” The vehicle disappears from view, and the second couple begins to share a kiss before the inevitable finally occurs and they’re interrupted by a massive explosion.

So runs the famous long take at the beginning of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), still one of the most memorable opening sequences in the history of film. Now, try to imagine how much better it would be if various surfaces — walls, storefronts, signposts — were retroactively emblazoned with slogans like “Just Do It” and invitations to drink Coca-Cola. Soon, you may not have to imagine, and you’ll have the tirelessly innovating engine of Big Tech to thank.

Earlier this week, the BBC’s New Tech Economy section published a largely enthusiastic report titled “How product placements may soon be added to classic films.” If that combination of words reads a bit ominously, the ensuing details are at least faintly dystopian. The crux: thanks to new advances in CGI, a slew of advertising agencies are rushing to get a piece of what looks to be a new frontier in the neoliberal commodification of culture. In 2019 alone, the global product placement industry was worth some $20.6 billion dollars — a figure that is almost certain to increase as streaming services grow, Blu-ray and DVD sales dwindle, and technology slowly converts every digital surface into a billboard-in-waiting.

“As walled content gardens leave traditional advertising increasingly obsolete,” reads the website of UK-based advertising firm Mirriad, “[we offer] a new solution for a new era in advertising. . . . With limitless creativity originally engineered for Hollywood, we seamlessly immerse brands into the epicentre of popular culture.”

Mirriad isn’t exaggerating, and one only needs to glance at an example of its brand insertion process in action to see why CGI technology has such incredible potential for advertisers even as it promises to coarsen entertainment for actual audiences. “We started out working in movies,” its CEO Stephan Beringer told the BBC. “Our chief scientist Philip McLauchlan, with his team, came up with the technology that won an Academy Award for the film Black Swan. The technology can ‘read’ an image, it understands the depth, the motion, the fabric, anything. So you can introduce new images that basically the human eye does not realise has been done after the fact, after the production.”

The best thing about such technology, at least from the crude standpoint of profitability, is that it can operate retroactively: seamlessly inserting brands and products into old movies, shows, music videos, and even live sports broadcasts — effectively having limitless potential given the visual malleability of digital images. As the BBC’s Jonty Bloom explains:

Advertisers could put new labels on the champagne bottles in Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, add different background neon advertising signs to Ocean’s 11, or get Charlie Chaplin to promote a fizzy drink. And then a few weeks, months or years later the added products can be easily switched to different brands.

One company has even developed a way of customizing such product placement using the same basic method employed by social media sites and web browsers. “So if you like wine,” Bloom continues, “then the hero of a film could be drinking a particular bottle that you might be tempted to try. Or if you are teetotal the star might be sipping on a bottle of branded water.”

Truth be told, it’s difficult to imagine a cruder depiction of what the capitalist profit motive looks like when taken to its logical conclusion than the prospect of classic movies edited and reedited to include an ever-changing array of present-day brands. It’s possible, of course, that audience resistance will put a check on the overzealous use of CGI product placement — likely why agencies like Mirriad take pains to assert a frictionless union between ad insertion and viewer experience. Convenient as this claim is for those looking to profit from the hustle, it’s as much a mirage as a virtual Pepsi arbitrarily inserted into City Lights or Casablanca: there simply being no way of getting around the fact that retroactively adding products to a film or TV show is bound to cheapen the experience.

Entertainment and culture, of course, have been the terrain of brands and advertisements for well over a century. But in the years ahead, it’s clear that a digital economy powered increasingly by advertising will seek to make encroachments that would have once been unthinkable — extracting value from our living rooms and laptop screens and ruining our favorite movies in the process.