Budweiser in ‘Flight’ leaves Anheuser-Busch with a bad aftertaste

11/6/2012
LOS ANGELES TIMES

Normally, an advertiser would be thrilled that its product is getting free exposure in one of the nation’s most popular movies. But if that product is beer and the picture is about a commercial airline pilot with a drinking problem, well, that’s a different story.

Anheuser-Busch InBev, which makes America’s No. 1-selling beer, Budweiser, is riled about the role its brew has in the new film “Flight,” which stars Denzel Washington as a pilot whose drinking habits become an issue in the aftermath of a plane crash.

The brewer went so far as to ask the film’s backer, Paramount Pictures, to blur or remove its famous logo from the movie when it is released on DVD, television and made available for streaming, said a person familiar with the situation who was unwilling to speak publicly on the issue.

“We would never condone the misuse of our products, and have a long history of promoting responsible drinking and preventing drunk driving,” said Anheuser-Busch Vice President Rob McCarthy. “It is disappointing that Image Movers, the production company, and Paramount chose to use one of our brands in this manner.”

The movie, about the aftermath of a horrific plane crash, received very positive reviews and opened last weekend in the U.S. and Canada with a strong $25 million in ticket sales. The picture is expected to continue attracting audiences throughout the upcoming holiday season.

Anheuser-Busch said Tuesday that it received no advance notice from Paramount that its product would be appearing in the film. But a lawsuit against the studio, owned by media giant Viacom Inc., seems highly unlikely. The courts have typically sided with the creative community when it comes to featuring real products in movies and television shows.

Paramount declined to elaborate on the matter involving Anheuser-Busch and “Flight.” Other liquors, including vodka brands Stolichnaya, Smirnoff and Absolut, also are featured in the movie.

Some wonder if Anheuser-Busch’s complaints about the film might not bring the brewer more attention than if it had just kept quiet about the matter.

“I think they are being overly sensitive,” said Allen Adamson, managing partner with the branding firm Landor Associates. “I don’t think people seeing a character using alcohol inappropriately are going to make the connection back to the brand or think the brand condones the behavior.”

Not everyone reacts badly if their product is featured in a less-than-ideal situation. The 2000 movie “Castaway,” which was also directed by “Flight” director Robert Zemeckis, features the company’s logo on a plane that crashes into the ocean. Initially, FedEx was concerned about its prominence in the story, but FedEx Chief Executive Fred Smith ultimately signed off on it because the film starring Tom Hanks portrayed the delivery service in a favorable light.

Having real products appear in movies and television shows is seen as important because they add authenticity. Increasingly, more and more companies are paying to have their products featured in productions. For advertisers, it is a creative way to reach consumers. Producers are embracing the practice because it is another source of revenue. James Bond films in particular are famous for the large number of products that are showcased, particularly fancy sports cars and cool electronic gadgets.

“Marketers spend a lot of time paying companies to give them real-life exposure in films,” Adamson said. “Even if the film is not good, it is generally good for the brand.”