Welcome to Future Week! In honor of the 30th anniversary of Back to the Future, we’ll be celebrating the entire time-traveling trilogy with features throughout the week. Today, Senior Editor Matt Melis explores how the series’ extensive use of product placement helped make the films instant classics. Now, gotta get back in time!
Certain trivial tendencies of movies have always irked me, even as a child. For instance, rarely, if ever, does a cashier actually make change. Extras and leading men alike have been getting stiffed for decades on packs of cigarettes and newspapers. I also remember cringing each time a character would place an order in a restaurant only to abruptly leave without so much as a sip or nibble. Obviously, Hollywood’s mother never gave it the age-old dinnertime guilt trip about starving children in China.
These are only minor edits on reality, but I noticed them early on. And as insignificant as they may be, they always managed to chip away at realism just enough to remind me that I was only watching a movie — a letdown at an age when I secretly wanted nothing more than to abdicate my well-worn spot on the carpet and climb through our television into a world as real as my own.
Something else besides coins and consumption was often missing, though. Most movie panoramas I encountered as a child had been stripped clean, whitewashed, and disinfected of all the logos, slogans, and jingles that shaped and ordered the world of a young consumer-in-training, aka a kid.
Wait, wait. Am I really about to advocate for product placement in movies? In some cases, yes. Sure, seeing what amounts to a commercial surreptitiously inserted into a film can feel obnoxious. But can’t it also be an effective tool in world building and a way to connect to an audience? As an ‘80s kid raised by a father, mother, and Magnavox, brands and commercials were an inescapable part of reality. Admittedly, the colors red, white, and blue signified an ice-cold Pepsi to me long before I associated them with Old Glory. And if I was too young to see the capitalistic forest back then, the trees weren’t to blame; the golden arches and disembodied head of the Colonel were already blocking my view.
Back to the Future was the first film of my childhood that clearly understood that people and, more importantly, times are defined by both what we purchase and what we wish we could afford. In that sense, Robert Zemeckis’ time-travel trilogy felt instantly authentic and believable. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly may skateboard while hanging onto jeeps and go on decade-hopping adventures, but he also exists in a world where he can step out his front door and down a Whopper, suck on a Miller High Life, and buy either Jennifer a girl’s best friend from Zales. In those moments, Hill Valley could be our neighboring town.
Of course, much of this aspect of production comes down to business, and many thousands of dollars changed hands to make Hill Valley mirror our own fast-food, mini-mall realities. Writer/producer Bob Gale famously stated that the Back to the Future trilogy taught him to “never do product placement, ever” due to the creative control surrendered when corporate suits expect to see a commercial rather than a film. It’s all the more amazing then that the product placement running rampant throughout these movies never feels like a sales pitch. In fact, it makes for some of our favorite moments. Here are a dozen of them.
Time circuits on!
Welcome to Hill Valley 2015, where dogs walk themselves, cars fly, and pizzas hydrate. The constant peril of the fragile space-time continuum aside, the fun of visiting Marty and Jennifer’s future home largely stems from seeing how we all might be living in the (ahem) distant future. And did anything catch our collective eyes more than that tiny Pizza Hut pie instantaneously plumping inside a Black & Decker hydrator? Granted, the pizza looks about as appetizing as Einstein’s Kal Kan (now Whiskas) puppy chow, but we all wanted a slice anyway. I can still remember how disappointing it was a few weeks later when Dad brought home a regular-size pizza from “the Hut.” He must’ve hydrated it in the car on the ride home.
D. Jones Manure Hauling (formerly A. Jones Manure Hauling)
The Doc’s calculations were right. When that baby hit 88 mph, we did see some serious shit. Know who else delivers some serious shit? D. Jones Manure Hauling, family owned and operated in Hill Valley since at least 1885. Yes, D. Jones is a fictitious enterprise — incidentally, always parked in just the right place — but who wouldn’t want to support this local business after it buried that butthead Biff’s ’46 Ford Super De Luxe not once (see below) but twice in the span of four days and two movies? Not to mention the company’s predecessor, A. Jones Manure Hauling, did a similar number on Biff’s great-grandfather, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, in the trilogy’s final installment. So, let’s hear it for D. Jones! Manure hauling may be a shit business, but they manage to come out smelling like roses in these films.
Relax, Billy Joel. The cola wars ended long ago in Hill Valley, and Pepsi came out the clear-cut victor. Zemeckis and Gale were wise enough to understand that time travel is a tricky business and viewers needed more than just a DeLorean to fully make the trip. One brilliant aid they use to mark the times is era-authentic packaging of famous brands. Hence, we can crack open a bottle of Pepsi at a Texaco in 1955, opt for a Diet Pepsi over a Tab (a Coke product) in 1985, and quench our thirst with a Pepsi Perfect in 2015 (still checking the soda aisle for this one). Fun with branding even worked itself into the script. “Give me a Pepsi free,” orders Marty at Lou’s Cafe. “You want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it.” Oh, Lou. You don’t suffer time-traveling slackers, do you?
I’ve never personally gotten a telegram, but I can’t imagine receiving one relaying any better news than the Doc being alive back in 1885. Not only does that Western Union telegram nudge us towards our next adventure, but it also sparks the imagination. The Doc couldn’t just slip a note into Marty’s jacket, so he took a gamble on a fledgling telegraph service that he knew would still be operating in 1955. That message gathered dust for 70 years until a scowling Joe Flaherty eerily pulls up in a car on a rainy night, reaches inside his jacket, and tells Marty, “I’ve got something for you.” Did anybody else’s heart stop? Classic. Catch our breath. Get some authentic cowboy duds like Clint Eastwood. Old West, here we come!
Survey 100 people, and 99 will tell you that Barbie is the first thing that comes to mind when they hear “Mattel.” And yet, a Mattel toy captures our imagination more than any other prop in this action-adventure trilogy apart from the DeLorean. Is Mattel also in the bazooka business or something? Nope. They make cute, little, pink girls’ hoverboards — one of which happens to save Marty from both Griff and Biff in Part II and prevents Eastwood Ravine from becoming Brown-Clayton Ravine in Part III. Feel bad for the little girl whom Marty “commandeered” the hoverboard from? Well, don’t. She’s got a Pitbull now! As for the rest of us, could the hoverboard be coming to stores in the not so distant future? Great Scott!
The King of Pop didn’t need any help shifting records in the ’80s, but Zemeckis and Gale probably realized that you couldn’t truly do the decade without him. So, we find a digital Jackson waiting tables in the Cafe 80s as “Beat It” plays; Marty’s Huey Lewis poster replaced by multiple Jackson images when he crawls through the “wrong” bedroom window; and even a classic moonwalk in the Old West when Mad Dog makes “Clint Eastwood” dance. The references probably did more for the films than they ever did for Jackson. Back then, after all, it was good to be the king.
At its heart, Back to the Future plays out as a father-son story, and with the son’s guidance, the father turns not only his fortunes around, but those of his entire future family. Toyota gets plenty of plugs throughout the film, but, more importantly, the black Toyota Hilux 4×4 that Marty covets acts as a symbol of the life he wants for himself and his family. “Someday, Jennifer … someday,” he says, but it’s not until his accidental trip back to 1955 that Marty is forced to finally go after the things he really wants in life. When we see that truck polished and waiting for Marty at film’s end, we know that both McFly men have learned to take control of their own destinies.
It breaks my heart every time I hear Hill Valley’s, nay, America’s favorite son utter that line: “All the best stuff is made in Japan.” Has Marty turned unpatriotic on us by Part III, or is he merely stating a fact that our ally to the East makes better-quality gadgets and gizmos? Boy, that JVC (Victor Company of Japan) camcorder and those futuristic glasses and cafe monitors look top-notch, and no less than “Darth Vader” opts to crank his Van Halen on an Aiwa (majority owned by Sony) cassette player. No, no. I just refuse to believe that the son of George McFly doesn’t understand the value of buying American. I think we all should take a moment to reflect upon a few inspiring words from a true American like Biff Tannen: “I just wanna say one thing. God bless America.”
Some moviegoers may have noticed Marty wearing a pair of white Nike Bruins with red swooshes in the original film. But you had to be asleep in the theater not to notice his Nike MAGs (Magnetic Anti Gravity) with power laces in Part II. Immediately, those of us who had worn velcro until an embarrassingly old age or others who were simply fed up with the tyranny of years of loop, swoop, and pull knew we had found the shoes of our dreams. Question: could we be in legit, power-lacing MAGs before long? Bill Hader and Kevin Durant seem confident, and rumors floating around the Nike camp suggest that 2015 could finally be the year. Clearly, this is what scientists need to be working on!
They say young men end up marrying a woman like their mother. That idea got taken to uncomfortable extremes when Marty wakes up “safe and sound in good-old 1955,” stripped down to his tighty purples in his teenage mother’s bedroom. (Damn it, Freud!) Not only had Calvin Klein secured some primo advertising real estate, but it also makes for a great running gag as Lorraine assumes the name on the underwear belongs to Marty and continues to refer to him as Calvin. When Marty punches out Biff in Lou’s Cafe, Lorraine delivers a ringing endorsement worth its weight in purple cotton: “That’s Calvin Klein. My god, he’s a dream!” What happened then? Well, in Hill Valley they say. Calvin Klein’s wallet grew three sizes that day.
Much ado has been made about Back to the Future Part II predicting a Cubs World Series victory in 2015. If it happens, we’ll talk. However, far more impressive is the fact that the film accurately predicted a Major League team in Miami. Granted, the film got both the league (AL instead of NL) and mascot (a gator instead of a marlin) wrong, but that feels like quibbling considering the town seemed more likely to be under water in 2015 than have its own ball club. Sadly for LA football fans, the film mentions nothing about the Raiders or Rams returning to La La Land.
DeLorean Motor Company
It’s a bit cruel, really. The moment Doc Brown’s DeLorean DMC-12 backed out of that trailer, it became one of the most desirable cars in the world. The problem was the DeLorean Motor Company had gone bankrupt back in 1982, meaning no more would be rolling off the assembly lines for all those suddenly in the market. I can’t even fathom what some nerds and car nuts have shelled out over the years for the remaining DeLoreans still floating (not hovering) around out there. Apart from maybe the Bat Mobile and Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, there’s no more famous movie vehicle than the DeLorean. If ever product placement could’ve saved a car manufacturer, this was the chance. Unfortunately, Back to the Future couldn’t get there in time to rescue the DeLorean Motor Company.