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Hollywood movies regularly showcase iconic American brands such as Ford, Coca-Cola or Apple. But a wave of recent U.S. films and TV programs have begun enjoying product-placement deals from half a world away: China.
Recent episodes of "The Big Bang Theory" have featured Shuhua Milk, made by the Chinese dairy giant Yili. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" featured Shuhua and products from Chinese clothing company Meters/Bonwe, the Chinese computer company Lenovo and the electronics company TCL, which will also be a marketing partner on "Iron Man 3." In "Iron Man 2," Chinese clothing line Semir, an official sponsor of the movie, provided the outfit for Scarlett Johansson's character, Black Widow.
In most cases, the primary goal isn't to woo American consumers. Instead, the Chinese firms hope that their presence in Hollywood productions will resonate with Chinese viewers. "The Big Bang Theory," for instance, though it does not air on TV in China, has drawn as many as 18 million hits on domestic video sites.
"Chinese consumers are wowed when they see Chinese brands in American media," said Janie Ma, entertainment marketing director at Ogilvy Beijing, which represents Lenovo. "It polishes the brands' local image."
China is calling on Hollywood product-placement experts for help. Norm Marshall, a Burbank-based maven of Hollywood product placement, set up the "Transformers" promotion for Lenovo, even creating a character named Brains with director Michael Bay specifically for Lenovo. (The character transformed into a Lenovo computer.)
For years, Chinese companies have paid to include their brands in Chinese films, sometimes subsidizing as much as 30% of a movie's budget for the privilege. Chinese director Feng Xiaogang's film "A World Without Thieves," for example, featured BMW, Nokia and Canon, among others.
The product placement doesn't always promote a strictly positive image. In the 2006 Chinese comedy "Crazy Stone," a can of Coke drops from the sky and smashes into a truck, which then crashes into a BMW.
But saturation in these films — coupled with a general belief that Hollywood represents a globalized cool — has led to a push into big-budget, English-language movies.
"We think Hollywood movies have great advantages in their quality, box office [reach] and commercial operation compared with domestic films," said Xie Wei, brand manager for Meters/Bonwe. "To a certain extent, Hollywood means high-tech, high box office, high quality."
Chinese companies are also aiming for eyeballs, and with Hollywood films dominating the Chinese box office, a product placement in a big American movie ensures that large groups of people will see the goods.
Some early statistics suggest that the approach may be helping drive sales. In the 2011 film "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," a wacky Chinese scientist slurps a carton of Shuhua Milk in an elevator with star Shia LaBeouf. "Let me finish my Shuhua Milk," he said in the Chinese version, and the line became an online catchphrase in China. Sales of Shuhua Milk rose 12% last year.
"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," the previous film in the "Transformers" series, featured the Meters/Bonwe logo. In the first week after the film's release in 2009, Meters/Bonwe's Shanghai flagship store sold 10,000 Transformers T-shirts, Xie said.
"One of the key goals of product placement is to make a brand seem bigger than it actually is," said Morgan Spurlock, director of the documentary "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" and a product-placement expert. "And in a lot of places around the world, nothing does that better than being in a Michael Bay movie."
But the Chinese companies may be underestimating the sophistication of their home audiences. "It is creepy to watch Transformers 3," wrote one user on the popular micro-blog Sina Weibo. "The hero, who works in a big U.S. company focusing on national defense, would use a computer produced by Lenovo? And people drink Shuhua Milk produced by China?"
Or as Weibo user Tong Xi, a marketing manager at the popular magazine Cosmo Bride, put it, "A beautiful day begins with a bottle of Shuhua Milk? So embarrassing, it not only smashed the brand's image but destroyed 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon.'"
Sirena Liu, founder of entertainment company Filmworks China, a company instrumental in placing the products in the action franchise, said that when Meters/Bonwe first approached her about placing a product in a Michael Bay movie, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" was at postproduction stage. Liu managed to arrange for the brand's logos to appear in the film for a one-time fee via digital insertion.
"It was the only chance if they wanted to do any placement — in postproduction via a computer," she explained.
For Chinese brands, investing in Hollywood movies can be risky business if the prime target audience is Chinese. There is no guarantee, for instance, that the movies will even be shown in Chinese theaters. Hollywood films that run afoul of Chinese censors are routinely barred from cinemas, and there are a limited number of slots available for non-Chinese movies.
Other problems persist, particularly when it comes to the naivete of some Chinese companies about Hollywood production.
"The industry [in China] is really fluid and flexible. There are no established mechanisms, no established procedures," said Marshall, the Burbank product-placement expert.
"I had one brand that was going to spend some ungodly amount of money on a movie that was already three-quarters in production. Somebody [in China] was telling them: 'We can do it.' And there was no way it could be done."
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