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Super sell me

Morgan Spurlock's new film reveals the influential man behind Hollywood's booming product-placement game.

April 21, 2011|Steven Zeitchik

If you've seen Steve Carell drink a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee on "The Office," Zach Galifianakis strap on a Baby Bjorn in "The Hangover," Mike Myers take a swig of Heineken in the "Austin Powers" movies or Lea Michele whip off Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses on "Glee," you may have wondered: Why did that product have to be there?

If you're Norm Marshall, you've watched that same film or TV show and congratulated yourself on a job well done.

Marshall has one of the most unusual -- and polarizing -- jobs in Hollywood. Officially called an "entertainment marketing consultant," his real task is more delicate and more blunt. Marshall is one of the premiere independent product-placement specialists, a role that requires him to be part diplomat, part translator and part enforcer on behalf of the countless brands that seek to promote their products by infiltrating mass entertainment.

Navigating the tricky waters of Hollywood to secure screen time for a brand -- and making sure characters stay on message once he does -- Marshall has a job that lies somewhere between Madeleine Albright and Michael Clayton. "I smooth out the rough edges," he said in an interview, only slightly ominously.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, April 30, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Product placement: An article about product-placement guru Norm Marshall in the April 21 Calendar section said that "The Office" featured product placement from Dunkin' Donuts. It featured product placement by Hostess.

Marshall makes a small but memorable appearance in "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," documentarian Morgan Spurlock's meta-exploration of product placement that opens Friday. In the movie, the director examines the product-placement system by attempting to get companies to finance his movie about, well, the product-placement system.

Marshall turns up midway through, recounting a story about how Alka-Seltzer, a client, was once portrayed negatively in a script for an independent film; he stepped in, he says, and got the scene cut.

While invisible to most moviegoers prior to Spurlock's film, the veteran has been exerting his influence for decades. There are other marketing experts in the world of product placement, and many New York advertising agencies now have their in-house people. Few have done it as long, and almost none as colorfully, as Marshall.

Hollywood veteran

A straight-shooting man in his late 50s who grew up north of Boston and later relocated to Southern California, Marshall has the bootstrapping look of a veteran salesman -- dark gray jeans, a no-frills haircut and a salt-of-the-earth demeanor -- but the contacts of a Hollywood producer. Those connections, along with a knowledge of advertisers' wants and fears, give Marshall what he says is a built-in advantage over in-house executives. "I can do this a lot better than a brand manager sitting in an office in Des Moines," he said.

In an interview, Spurlock called him "the king of Hollywood," which seems like an exaggeration until you realize just how big a business product placement is -- Spurlock puts it at $3 billion per year -- especially in an era when more and more people are able to fast-forward through normal commercials.

To place a product, Marshall and his staff of about 70 employees at Norm Marshall & Associates spend their days "breaking down" hundreds of scripts -- that is, looking for opportunities to insert his clients' products -- and then work over the various creative, marketing and logistics types to get it done. (Marshall declined to acknowledge which of his placements are paid and which are barter deals; that is, placements made not in exchange for money but for use of the product on the set. Such admissions, he said, "tend to backflush on me.")

Cars top his list

Marshall's biggest business is cars. He keeps a fleet of vehicles from General Motors, a longtime client, on a lot across the street from his office near Burbank's Bob Hope Airport -- they're cars in working shape that have been deemed unfit for one reason or another for consumer sale. (He has a separate lot outside New York City.)

Marshall's pitch to the transportation managers on a set is simple:

"Someone will come to me and say they need a car for an action scene. I'll say, 'I have an Escalade you can blow up. It'll be a lot cheaper than if you tried to do it with a car from Avis or Hertz.' " All he asks in return is that the car is shown prominently, and that the scene doesn't impugn the car's safety record.

It's a scenario in which everybody -- at least everybody involved in the transaction -- wins. The car is given to the transportation manager, who's happy he can check an item off his list at no cost. Marshall has satisfied GM and justified his retainer. GM, meanwhile, has gotten a free ad for little more than a car it wasn't going to sell anyway.

Marshall conducts business from a sprawling ground-floor office amid auto-repair shops and dilapidated industrial lots.

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