Saturday, May 26, 2012


(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, May 23.)

Whatever you think of James Bond, his name is undeniably associated with a certain sense of style.

Bond drove a vintage Bentley and smoked hand-made cigarettes (60 a day) made by tobacconists Morlands of Grosvenor St, using a blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco.

He wore Sea Island cotton shirts bought from Turnbull and Asser of Jermyn St (who, unlike Morlands, are still very much in business, promoting themselves as shirtmakers by appointment to HRH the Prince of Wales). More formal occasions called for a dark blue suit of serge, tropical worsted or alpaca, depending on the climate, with a heavy white silk shirt and thin black knitted silk tie, dark blue socks and black moccasin shoes.

A famously fussy drinker, Bond stipulated that his martinis should consist of three measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka and a half-measure of Kina Lillet (a French aperitif wine), well shaken and served ice-cold in a deep champagne goblet with a slice of lemon. He was also fond of Taittinger and Krug champagnes and had a taste for fine red wines from Bordeaux.

These details were more than merely incidental to Ian Fleming’s stories. Bond’s tastes may seem quaintly dated now, just as his attitude to women seems patronisingly sexist by contemporary standards, but they were integral to the appeal of Fleming’s books. They were all part of the fantasy the author wove around his famous character.

They were Fleming’s idea of how a hedonistic, sophisticated man of the world with expensive habits might live. Bear in mind that British readers, Fleming’s primary target market, were still living with wartime rationing when the first Bond book (Casino Royale) was published in 1953, and the British spy’s racy, exotic lifestyle must have seemed a perfect avenue for escapism from the dreary real world.

Even now, well into the 21st century, the Bond formula remains commercially potent: a 25th Bond film, Skyfall, is currently in production, which brings me to the point of this column.

Skyfall will mark a departure from previous Bond films. For the first time, Bond (played by Daniel Craig) will be seen drinking beer. And not just any beer, but Heineken, because the Dutch brewery has struck a deal with the film’s producers – one that takes “product placement”, whereby companies pay to have their products displayed prominently on the screen, to a new level.

The Heineken deal, rumoured to be worth $US45 million, illustrates the all-pervasive influence of marketers in modern capitalism. To these cold-eyed hucksters, everything – whether it be a film, a major sports event or even a TV news bulletin – is reduced to a marketing opportunity. Nothing, not even the 60-year legacy behind James Bond, is sacred in the scramble to promote the all-important brand.

I was particularly interested in the comment of Heineken spokeswoman Lesya Lysyj, who was reported as saying: “James Bond is a perfect fit for us. He is the epitome of the man of the world.”

Note the language. “Perfect fit” is classic marketing-speak. In the world of the marketing executive, perfect fits, market share and brand positioning are all that matter. Bond may have drunk martini and champagne for nearly 60 years, but fidelity to Fleming’s character counts for nothing once a big Dutch brewery waves a big cheque under the noses of Skyfall’s producers. Now Bond is to become just another lager-swilling prole.

Product placement was already rampant in Bond films, leading one to wonder whether storylines and dialogue have now been wholly subordinated by commercial motives.Entire websites are devoted to “leveraging” (another wretched marketing word) off the products exposed in the Bond films. You can find sites that tell you the brand of every item of clothing worn by Daniel Craig in his role as Bond, right down to braces and swimming togs.

Such promotional opportunities don’t come cheap; the marketing arrangements negotiated with each new Bond film must almost rival the box office takings in terms of the revenue generated. It’s no coincidence that in movie industry parlance the Bond films are collectively described as a franchise, a term synonymous with the right to sell merchandise. But the Heineken deal is perhaps the most brazen example yet of commercial tinkering with Fleming’s legacy.

Does the fact that Bond will now drink a bland Dutch lager really matter, in the grand scheme of things? Of course not. What does matter is the baneful influence of the marketers, who now contaminate everything within reach.

They have captured professional sport with their exclusive sponsorship deals and obsessive, heavy-handed suppression of competition (as we saw during the Rugby World Cup), and they are increasingly invading the media. In television, the influence of marketing executives even influences the content of news bulletins.

In my vision of Hell, marketing managers would be in charge. Commercial dominance is all they understand; no other values exist in their narrow, soulless world. Often they have no interest in the goods they are selling, only in the precious brand.

Even in the wine industry, which calls for a degree of personal affinity with the product, I have come across marketing managers who might just as well have been promoting tractors or ballpoint pens. Some would have been barely capable of distinguishing Chateau Haut-Brion from Diet Coke. And why should they? To the marketing executive, the intrinsic merit of the product is of little or no consequence. 

Oh, well ... I’d long since lost interest in the James Bond films anyway. Fleming’s fund of original stories was exhausted long ago and the scriptwriters struggle to come up with fresh ideas – the more so, no doubt, when those infernal product placement opportunities keep getting in the way.

The overrated Craig – the sixth actor to play Bond – has been credited with breathing new life into the franchise, but he has all the emotional range of a piece of 4x2. He exhibits none of the panache that most of his forerunners (especially Sean Connery, who remains the definitive Bond) brought to the role. It would be fitting, then, if the film that finally ended Bond’s extraordinary run was one that the marketing hucksters had hijacked.  

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