the anti-consumerism of 80’s science fiction

When non-profit US consumer rights group Public Citizen established Commercial Alert back in 2011 to monitor the ever-pervasive creep of advertising into pop culture and entertainment, it was probably no news to anyone that they had their work cut out for them. 

Private companies and brands had been plugging their products in films, television sitcoms and kids cartoons for so long now that it was almost standard practice. Nevertheless, the advocates argued that this ramped-up consumerism was now not only aggressively targeting children, but it was negatively affecting the health of a society that was becoming less active and more obese. It’s aim: “to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy”  had arrived on the scene about a century or so too late.

Shipping and transport companies had jostled with one another to have their enterprises mentioned in the pages of Jules Verne’s 1873 fictional novel Around the World in 80 Days. Impressionist painter Édouard Manet’s last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère has several labels of bottles showing, including the distinctive red triangle of British beer Bass Pale Ale – though this has been cited by historians as more of a sign of French anti-German sentiment during the Franco-Prussian War rather than a guileful marketing plug. 

Manet’s ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ was painted in 1882, and is now located in the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House in London.

But ask any advertising guru and they’ll undoubtedly tell you that the silver screen has been the corporation’s long term darling when it comes to selling a product to the consumer. A 2007 academic paper by Jean-Marc Lehu goes so far as to suggest that the early 1896 films of Auguste and Louis Lumiere were produced at the behest of British conglomerate company Lever Brothers. With bars of Sunlight Soap featured prominently throughout, this could may-well be the first case of paid product placement in film. 

William A. Wellman’s ambitious silent war epic, Wings, the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, contained a scene with a strategically-placed Hershey’s chocolate bar in 1927. A banner for Wrigley’s PK chewing gum is visible for almost half a minute in Fritz Lang’s 1931 German masterpiece, M. Whilst New York-based motion picture trade journal Harrison’s Reports had frequently voiced its unswerving criticism of product placement in cinema from as far back as 1920, in Buster Keaton and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s two-reel comedy The Garage, to the Marx brother’s slapstick musical Love Happy in 1949. In the latter of the two, the film’s producers had Harpo Marx act out a chase scene across several rooftops with wall-to-wall neon billboards…a last-ditch attempt to salvage production when the film had blown its budget.  

The United Artists picture Love Happy was co-produced by silent film icon Mary Pickford.

All of that would pale in comparison to the decade of the 80’s; where the presence of commercialism and consumerism had hit an ubiquitous high (and arguably an ethical low), as society embraced network and cable television, shopping mall culture and fast food chains with evermore vehemence and fervour. With the Reagan-era too came a rise of the New Right; and a shift toward new populist conservative movements that gunned for neoliberal economic policies of increased military expenditure…not to mention a close-fisted approach to the ever-widening income gap that was spawning more ‘have-nots’ than ever before in the nation’s history. 

And yet, take a look at the slew of major Hollywood blockbusters and teen movies that were being released around this time and one would have been hard-pressed to spot any malcontent in the faces of these fizzy drink-sipping, sneaker wearing, cassette walkman-bopping white Americans being portrayed on the big screen. Now that the videotape industry was taking off too, everyone from consumer electronic companies, apparel brands, fast food giants and tobacco corporations were finding ways to get around the fact that consumers were now armed with a fast forward button to scroll through ads. No longer was pop culture and entertainment merely a way for brands to surreptitiously incorporate their products into the picture. They now were being produced as a sole vehicle to boost sales too. Consider Cliff Richard’s 1981 pop hit Wired for Sound, that reeked of one big marketing plug for the newly released Sony walkman. Or the multitude of 80’s kids cartoons such as Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Care Bears or My Little Pony that were developed to introduce toy lines to America’s next generation of obedient consumers. 

High fructose corn syrup heavyweights Coca-Cola had been featured so prominently in mainstream cinema over the years that a coke bottle could easily have been confused as a cast member. From billboard appearances in 1933’s King Kong or 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life…being incorporated into the script as a plot device in the 1961 James Cagney vehicle One, Two, Three…to a bottle falling from the sky and landing in the Kalahari Desert in the highly questionable 1980 racial typecasting film The Gods Must Be Crazy, the soft drink goliath had invested heavily to be the beverage of choice in the motion picture industry. 

But Coke’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures in 1982 for $750 million USD was a watershed moment for the infiltration of products into the cinema frame. In Karate Kid, one of the highest grossing films of 1984, the corporation had ordered that a number of its products be shoehorned into the set design. The film’s lead, Ralph Macchio had openly objected to this – deliberately obscuring the logo on a can of Sprite in one scene as a personal protest. But by this point a steady barrage of companies and brands were already following suit, and products were being so interwoven in the picture that it was almost becoming industry protocol. 

Scenes of blatant product placement in major 80’s films are so iconic nowadays that it would be hard to imagine what they’d be without them. Try to imagine clone hunter Rick Deckard descending upon a futuristic Los Angeles metropolis that wasn’t illuminated by the neon logos of Pan Am, Atari and Coca-Cola in the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner. Or the adorable martian in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 megahit E.T having a hankering for apples instead of Reese’s bite-sized candies. Do you suppose Ray Ban’s popular Wayfarer and Aviator sunglasses would be where they are today without Tom Cruise’s brand of cool in either 1983’s Risky Business or 1986’s Top Gun? And who could forget Back to the Future 2’s Pepsi Perfect that had everybody’s taste buds tingling just to sample a bottle…and when 2015 had actually come around and it wasn’t to be found in stores? Well, we just reached for a plain-old Pepsi-cola. 

But through all of the promotional fluff and corporate force-feeding came a pugnacious and defiant insubordinate; a new school of filmmaker who rejected Hollywood’s penchant for a product plug with utter disdain. Independently backed, the level of creative freedom that they wielded enabled them to manufacture scathing social commentaries and critical satires that were quite often as gory and as revolting as they were refreshing and timely. With plots anchored around themes of horror and science fiction, their outrageous stories were in direct response to what they perceived as a frightfully greedy corporate system, driven by the opportunistic government policies of Reaganomics and conservative America. 

British director Alex Cox’s 1984 debut feature Repo Man – developed from a script formulated with a couple of fellow UCLA film school graduates, inspired from his own personal tales working as a repossession agent, and made possible by the finances secured by former band member of The Monkees, Michael Nesmith – may well have populated every section of your local video store back in the mid-late 80’s, from science-fiction, action, comedy and crime. Inexorably punk, and packing an anti-nuclear message, its chaos and unruliness makes for the perfect sendup of consumerism and America under the Reagan administration.

The film’s antihero, Otto Maddox (played by Emilio Estevez) is uninspired by the humdrum of his life as a grocery store clerk living with his burnt-out hippie parents who have squandered his college money on a televangelist. He soon realises he has another calling when he runs into Bud (a memorable performance from Harry Dean Stanton) who informs him that ‘the life of the repo man is always intense’. Soon they are rolling together through the seedy streets of Los Angeles on the hunt for a 1964 Chevrolet Malibu with an atomic secret hidden in the boot. 

In the world of Repo Man, any products you see in the aisles of the supermarket, the corner store shelves or the kitchen cupboard are packaged in generic white labels – with equally unimaginative contents, such as ‘Drink’, ‘Peaches’ or ‘Food – Meat Flavored’. A symbol of the awful banality of consumer culture, this rebel-rousing cult classic has also been described by Criterion as “a politically trenchant take on President Reagan’s domestic and foreign policies”.

Equally critical of the totalitarianism and corruption of the Reagan-era was the uber-violent 1987 sci-fi action film Robo Cop. Set in the not-too-distant future of downtown Detroit, slain officer Alex Murphy (played by Peter Weller) is brought back to life again by the conglomerate Omni Consumer Products as a cybernetic organism on a crusade to stamp out criminal activity in the city. Pestered by the enduring memories of his former life, the film so astutely explores themes of identity, existentialism and philosophy; shrouding them in a storm of bullets, broken bones and blood. 

Screenwriter-in-the-making and Universal Pictures junior story executive Edward Neumeier had first conceived the idea for the film whilst sitting in on the set of Blade Runner. He later developed the screenplay with Michael Miner, who described the film as: “comic relief for a cynical time”. It turned out that the satire in Robo Cop was so subtle that it even eluded director Paul Verhoeven at first – who initially tossed the script in disgust until his wife had pointed out the black humor that lay under the surface. Neumeier and Verhoeven would collaborate again a decade later on the satirical military sci-fi Starship Troopers.  

Legendary B-movie writer and director Larry Cohen’s acerbic 1985 sci-fi The Stuff is one of the more venomous satires on consumerism and America’s unhealthy obsession with junk food. When a white, alien ooze is discovered seeping from the earth by a couple of railroad contractors, a mysterious corporation seizes the opportunity to package it and feed it to a consumer base that finds its taste irresistible. It soon becomes a nationwide phenomenon…populating every aisle or fridge door in America, and threatening the end for the once-profitable ice cream and frozen dessert empire. Investigations by one dubiously meddlesome kid, an ex-FBI agent hired by ice-cream executives, and a junk food mogul referred to as ‘Chocolate-Chip Charlie’, lead them to believe that The Stuff is actually a living, parasitic substance, ransacking the brain of its victims and literally eating them alive. 

Cohen, who had already produced the 70’s horror films ‘It’s Alive’ and ‘It Lives Again’ that highlighted the potential dangers of chemicals on the natural environment and the effects of prescribed drugs on unborn babies, had later remarked about the making of the film: “My main inspiration was the consumerism and corporate greed found in our country and the damaging products that were being sold. I was constantly reading in the newspapers about various goods and materials being recalled because they were harming people. For example, you had foods being pulled off the market because they were hazardous to people’s health”. 

Satirising the effects of genetically-modified foods and the lunacy of consumerism was the outrageous 1988 parody film Return of the Killer Tomatoes, co-written and produced by future Democratic representative Stephen Peace. The follow-up of the 1978 Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the film begins where the riotous original had left off: with America waging a war on that other red enemy…the not-so-innocent tomato.

Similar to Repo Man, the first half of the film only features generic-labelled products. But prior to the second segment the film is interrupted by the director who informs the cast and crew that they’ve exhausted their finances and ran their pockets dry. This is where one of the film’s co-stars, a young George Clooney cuts in: “We’ve been avoiding it, but it’s the 80’s…I think it’s time for some product placement.” In no time, the film is shamelessly incorporating marketing promo for soft drink, candy, beer and even quad bikes courtesy of San Diego Honda. 

John Carpenter’s 1988 high-octane cult science-fiction film They Live is possibly the most culturally referenced 80’s satire there is on commercialism and mass media. It’s influence on art and pop culture is not to be understated; referenced in everything these days from music videos to clothing lines. Based upon a 1963 piece of short fiction by Ray Nelson that was submitted in an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, They Live shares similar themes to the seminal 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers – whereby a race of aliens have infiltrated humanity and are ruling them through the subliminal messages in advertising. Ex-wrestler Roddy Piper plays the wayward drifter known only as ‘Nada’, who uncovers the secret society when he inherits a pair of sunglasses that reveal the world in its truthful light – manipulated by the elite alien race in order to have humans blindly submit and consume. 

Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay, directed and co-wrote the music for the film, had later offered his reasons behind the motivation in making They Live: “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.” 

Comparable themes of secret societies, class divide and material greed were explored again in director Brian Yuzna’s 1989 low-budget body horror, Society. Described by British film critic Mark Kermode as “stupid yet brilliant”, Beverly Hills yuppie Bill Whitney (played by fetchingly handsome Baywatch beau Billy Warlock) suspects the residents in his upper-class neighbourhood are involved in one lecherous and incestuous orgy of murder and debauchery. When he gets his hands on a secret tape recording, it not only confirms this hunch but incriminates his sister and both parents as implicit in the cult too. Suddenly, he is attracting the unwanted attention of the lewd and repugnant society; and his growing refusal to accept ‘the rules’ is dangerously jeopardising his chance to be part of the ‘cool’ crowd. 

A further satirical slating of class and social inequality came in the form of Street Trash; another sci-fi/horror B-movie which was released in 1987. Directed by award-winning cinematographer and James Cameron’s go-to Steadicam operator J. Michael Muro (credited here as Jim Muro), Street Trash refers to the city’s rough-sleeping population of hobos who suffer gruesome deaths whenever they neck a bottle of cheap, expired liquor called ‘Viper’ that turns their body matter into a puddle of skin-coloured sludge. Peppered throughout with distasteful violence and offensive gore, the products in Street Trash are so out of reach to the derelicts in the film that they’re only ever in their hands when they’re stuffing them in their ragged coats or putting them down their trousers. 

Incidentally, the film’s producers had actually attempted to receive some sort of product sponsorship to help finance the picture but were unsuccessful. In the end, all they got was a supply of Drakes Cakes that were quickly consumed by the cast and crew on set. The empty boxes were actually used as props to fill one of the victim’s exploding stomachs. So perhaps this was a case of inadvertent product placement after all…though probably not in the way that the company had anticipated. In a later interview about the film, screenwriter and producer Roy Frumkes had later commented: “I wrote it to democratically offend every group on the planet, and as a result the youth market embraced it as a renegade work, and it played midnight shows.”

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