Forget the trailers -- the ads are most likely running in one of the summer blockbusters. ''T3'' features the appropriately manly Budweiser, Balance Bars, and Xenadrine EFX (a muscle builder and fat-burning pill); ''Legally Blonde 2'''s Elle Woods sports Juicy Couture jeans and Jimmy Choos; ''The Italian Job'''s Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron are upstaged by fleets of sleek MINI Coopers; even horror flick ''28 Days Later'' has characters guzzling Pepsi and scarfing Heinz baked beans.
While product placement predates E.T.'s obsession with Reese's Pieces and ''Cast Away'''s love affair with FedEx, it's the sheer volume of brand names in movies that signifies how important Hollywood is to Madison Avenue these days. ''Everybody understands we need to do things other than conventional advertising -- and that means placing brands in the context of people's lives,'' says Laurie Coots of TBWA Worldwide, whose ad clients include Apple and Nextel. ''We're in a massive period of experimentation to find out what works and what's overkill.''
That includes megabuck marketing partnerships in such films as ''X2'' and ''Die Another Day,'' not to mention Miramax peddling a $35 million cameo for the car to be used in ''The Green Hornet.'' And cynics may argue that ''Pirates of the Caribbean'' and ''The Haunted Mansion'' are big ads for the theme-park attractions (and vice versa). It doesn't stop there: ''There's going to be this new area, branded content, where the brand is actually a character, the star of the show,'' says Coots. ''For example, we've created a campaign for the Nissan Xterra called '100 Things to Do Before You Die.' We can take that and say, Should it be a show? If so, Xterra would be in every episode.''
Ah, but where does art fit into this? ''28 Days Later'' producer Andrew Macdonald says all the brand-name-dropping in his film was meant to inject familiarity into the eerie zombie pic. ''We wanted a lot of brands to make it seem like reality,'' says Macdonald, noting that there were no deals with Pepsi or other products. ''We just bought a few cans and got on with it.''
(Additional reporting by Amy Roberts)