MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: FedEx's star role in Cast Away points to a marketing trend

Excess flab? Feeling a bit paunchy? Love handles big enough to accommodate several suitors? You need the Tom Hanks guide to dieting.

Excess flab? Feeling a bit paunchy? Love handles big enough to accommodate several suitors? You need the Tom Hanks guide to dieting.

Got a parcel to send? Time of the essence? Halfway around the world?

Handle with care? You need the Tom Hanks guide to couriering.

Hanks has combined a nutritious diet with a programme of exercise and managed to lose three stone for his new role in the movie Cast Away. Federal Express is a world-class courier service dedicated to delivering your parcels safely and efficiently around the globe.

I know all of this because I've seen it splashed over several national newspapers over the past week or so, and Mammon can thank product placement for the inches of free publicity FedEx has subsequently banked.

In the movie, Hanks plays a Federal Express employee who has devoted his life to couriering until the FedEx plane he is travelling on crashes, leaving him stranded on a desert island (surrounded by FedEx parcels).

Already, FedEx has got more mentions in the press over recent days than it deserves in a year.

As product placements go, it's a beautiful example of its class: for 143 minutes, ten foot high, Hanks is a FedEx hero. But it's also a sweetly old-fashioned example. The deal was sealed without the involvement of an agency (ring your alarm bells) and apparently not a dime changed hands - FedEx gets all this for free in return for allowing its name to be used.

What FedEx has shown with Cast Away (and this is even before the box office opens) is the power of product placement, both to get under the skin of the viewer and to piggyback the PR engine. It's an amazingly efficient and cost-effective international vehicle.

Hollywood, too, is rapidly coming to recognise that while such deals were once the icing on the marzipan, they could soon account for a rather large slice of the cake. New net technology is threatening to undermine the economics of the film industry in the same way that Napster has put a rocket under the music business. New, high-quality video streaming systems such as DivX;-) and its rivals are threatening to make the pirating of new movie releases a simple and cheap process over the internet. With box office takings under such fire, revenue from product placement deals could soon prove an invaluable factor in Hollywood economics.

All of which is set to hoist product placement from the grubby fringes of the communications business to a more central role.

With this elevation, handing over your brand name to movie directors with priorities different from your own is likely to become less of a lottery and more of a commercial contract. Smart agencies will already be working to ensure that such deals are seen as the territory of the communications agency, not something advertisers such as FedEx can be left to negotiate alone.