It is no accident that a U-Haul van is used to move actor Tom Cruise's household furnishings in the new film "The Firm." And those Ford Explorers that dinosaurs rip to shreds in "Jurassic Park" didn't just happen to be hanging around the studio lot.
Both are "product placements"--products that appear in the films only because companies were willing to pay top dollar for the exposure, or supply them free. Now Hollywood is being challenged to consider a vastly expanded use of one of the more provocative product placements: condoms.
After all, what good is it to lecture adolescents to practice safe sex if they constantly see their favorite film stars unprotected during love scenes? Although the major condom makers have occasionally paid to have their products placed in films, there is a new move afoot to increase their presence. Promoters say it could boost the image of condoms and might even influence teens who are sexually active to be more safe.
"This is a unique opportunity for the condom makers to get involved in the mainstream," said Phyllis Z. Miller, a Beverly Hills entertainment marketing consultant and president of Phyllis Z. Miller & Associates. Miller is spearheading the drive for portraying safer sex in films by having products such as condoms and spermicidal jellies show up on night stands and bedspreads during sex scenes.
For years, Miller placed packaged goods like Maalox in feature films. She linked makers of familiar consumer products with studios that were looking to use such products in their films. But that wasn't very gratifying, she said. "I realized I could do it for something that I really believe in."
Miller, who has daughters ages 10 and 12, said they are strongly influenced by what they see at the picture show. "To them, Michael J. Fox isn't just an actor, but someone who is very real," she said. "What they see him--or others--do can strongly influence their behavior."
Indeed, 12- to 23-year-olds rank among the most frequent moviegoers. And in one recent survey of adolescents, the majority of those interviewed said their No. 1 source for information about AIDS was the mass media--ranking far ahead of other influences such as friends and family.
"Sex is constantly portrayed in films, but you almost never see signs that people are protecting themselves," said Harlan Rotblatt, co-director of the Sexually Transmitted Diseases program at the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. "This perpetuates the invisibility of condoms to adolescents."
But there are those who strongly object to placing condoms as props in films. "It sends a message that sex is OK as long as you use condoms," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based fundamentalist group Traditional Values Coalition. "We know there are social, emotional, medical and psychological consequences to this kind of promiscuity."
The Entertainment Industries Council, a Burbank-based nonprofit group that represents the film and TV industries, recently sent letters to several thousand of the top film writers and directors in Hollywood, specifically suggesting ways that safe sex could be portrayed in films and on TV shows. "From a product placement perspective, there is a real opportunity there," said Brian Dyak, president of the group.
Despite a current emphasis on the commercial aspects of placing products in films, the practice has its roots in social causes. Such placements began appearing in films in the 1940s, when stars were shown purchasing U.S. Savings Bonds to help the war effort, said Frank Devaney, senior vice president of product placement at the Burbank office of the Rogers & Cowan public relations firm.
The product placement business faced some criticism in the 1980s when it linked up a few times with giant tobacco companies to push their products in films.
Philip Morris paid an estimated $350,000 to have James Bond smoke Lark cigarettes in the film "License to Kill" and $50,000 to have Lois Lane chain-smoke Marlboro Lights in "Superman II." After loud consumer complaints, the tobacco industry agreed to stop placing its products in films.
Some marketers say that condoms could be a way for film studios to improve the image of product placements. Next to abstinence, which is rarely portrayed in popular films, condoms rate among the more recognizable symbols of safe sex.
In recent years, condoms have been placed in several major films. The makers of Ramses condoms say they paid more than $10,000 to have their products shown in "Lethal Weapon II." And various condom brands have also shown up in several other films, including "Pretty Woman," "Used People" and "Love Potion 9."
To have its Gold Circle brand promoted in "Pretty Woman," the Safetex Division of Norcross, Ga.-based AladanCorp. paid an estimated $15,000. In the scene, actress Julia Roberts, who plays a prostitute, pulls a condom out of her boot while sitting on actor Richard Gere's desk.