On the big screen, a hero's mettle is established by showing how much punishment the star can withstand and how daunting the obstacles are while ultimately getting the job done.
Early in the latest James Bond movie, "Skyfall," an assassin seeks to escape on a train speeding through the Turkish countryside. His tireless pursuer is pelted with bullets, swats away bugs and, when the bad guy disconnects the trailing car, extends an arm to literally hold on to the rest of the train so the chase can continue.
And the pursuer is, in fact, tireless because it is a modified Caterpillar 320D L excavator that Daniel Craig's Bond has commandeered. The bullets are bullets, but the bugs are Volkswagen Beetles, some swept off the train, others crushed. The logo-covered excavator's arm not only holds onto the rest of the train but provides Bond a perch from which to leap into the carriage, fixing the cuffs in his Tom Ford suit as he goes after the villain.
"For (the filmmakers), it wasn't an excavator, it wasn't what they would in the U.K. call a digger -- it was for them a 'hero machine' because it was something that actually saves Bond," said Robert Woodley, the marketing executive for Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., from his office in Geneva.
Woodley arranged and oversaw Cat's "Skyfall" star turn. "It's not just having the brand out there. It's seeing what light it's going to be viewed in."
"Skyfall" is practically "Skymall," what with all the brands and products mentioned and showcased.
The practice is neither new nor isolated. Yet even by the license-to-shill standards of increasingly commercialized James Bond movies, this one has an awful lot of brand exposure. All that's missing are the NASCAR-style logo patches for Bond, no slouch behind the wheel.
Especially now that the fictional covert operator is the focal point of an extremely overt ad campaign for beer, albeit Heineken.
Never mind the other products basking in the superspy's aura, such as Sony mobile phones and Vaio laptop computers, Macallan single-malt Scotch, Honda cycles, Bollinger Champagne, Globe-Trotter suitcases, Crockett & Jones footwear, Walther guns, Aston Martin cars, Swarovski jewelry, Omega watches, OPI nail polish, Land Rovers and Range Rovers and all the rest.
Some pay for the privilege, some make other arrangements. Some, like the new James Bond fragrance hawked by Procter & Gamble, aren't in the film. But all told, sponsorship and other ancillary deals for "Skyfall" are said to have brought in $45 million, about a third of what it cost to produce the film, one of the best in the Bond series.
"We have relationships with a number of companies so that we can make this movie," Craig told Moviefone on the "Skyfall" set this spring. "The simple fact is that, without them, we couldn't do it. It's unfortunate, but that's how it is."
The 007 tradition of brand integration, brand cameos, product placement or whatever you want to call it dates back to the original Ian Fleming stories. Some would say it's in the name of verisimilitude. But it's said Bond, originally a reader exclusively of The Times of London, also began reading the rival Daily Express when that paper began serializing Fleming's work.
Through a half-century of 007 films, the practice has grown as producers realized the potential economic windfall and marketers recognized the unique opportunity of association with the 007 franchise -- as well as other entertainment.
"The challenge with product placement is it has to fit," said Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "When it works, there's a natural connection between the brand and the story and when it doesn't work, there's an inconsistency, and both parties are worse for the deal."
Today's sophisticated media consumer expects to see brands in TV shows, movies and even video games, according to Tom Weeks, senior vice president at LiquidThread (formerly known as Starcom Entertainment), the branded entertainment and content development operation within Chicago's Starcom MediaVest Group. But proper context -- proper casting -- is a must.
"Brands are stars, too," Weeks said. "They've got their own Twitter accounts. They've got their own Facebook pages. And they're invited into content as part of the experience. But it has to be done right, in a way that's not obtrusive and doesn't interrupt the digestion of that content."
Some Bond aficionados scoff at the Heineken tie-in, preferring to think of their man as a martini and Dom Perignon man. But there was Red Stripe beer in 1962's "Dr. No." And besides the familiar green-bottled Heineken (whose logo also is emblazoned on an unlikely wooden crate toppled in an early chase scene) and a lightly sipped martini, there is a memorable scene built around 50-year-aged Macallan.
"When I was at Kraft, there were times when a film would come out and our brands would be in the film and we'd be delighted ... or not," he said. "I never saw a time when one of our brands was used in a way that made us cringe, but it could happen."
Case in point: the VW Beetles, out-of-stock models, crushed in "Skyfall." "While we always look for opportunities for exposure in the form of product placement, we were not involved with this placement," Corey Proffitt, who handles product communications for Volkswagen of America, told the Tribune by email.
Caterpillar, which first tied up with 007 in 1999's "The World is Not Enough," hopes the "Skyfall" connection boosts brand awareness, particularly in emerging markets like China, which seems a manageable goal.
A theme of "Skyfall" is that today's world is changing faster than ever, which is as true of advertising as it is of espionage. That's why you're only going to see more brand cameos, a la the Bond films.
"The traditional tools of advertising are fading and marketers are looking for new things to do," Calkins said. "Product placement becomes one of those things that can engage people where other methods have no effect."
Talk about daunting obstacles to overcome while ultimately getting the job done.