Excuse me, I must find a White Castle

The filmmakers were, in fact, lucky to get White Castle on board. Originally, the Harold And Kumar script had two other characters in the film on the hunt for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but the franchise panicked at the last minute over the film's lewd content and casual drug use and pulled its name out.

The Toronto Star
August 1, 2004

Excuse me, I must find a White Castle
A film's product puffery sometimes makes sense
Ben Rayner

Not being an inhabitant of the American Midwest, I think about those squat, little white-brick burger joints only during the half-dozen times a year I wind up roaming through strip-mall parking lots in suburban Detroit or the fringes of New York City.

Even then, it's usually with a fair measure of revulsion. The chain may have its cult followers, but the decidedly slimy nature of White Castle's perforated, steam-cooked beef patties — "steamed hams," Principal Seymour Skinner might call them — has never entirely agreed with my usually omnivorous and unquestioning palette.

For the past week, though, I've had those disgusting mini-burgers on the brain constantly. It has illogically occurred to me on several occasions that I might have to grab a handful the next time I'm in the States. Today, I was so consumed with thoughts of fast food that I was driven to seek out a Whopper for lunch. I already regret it.

Blame for these unnatural urges rests squarely on publicity for the new comedy Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle, a film that must surely have the powers-that-be behind the Kansas-born franchise rubbing their hands together in glee at the coming boom in customers.

That Harold And Kumar — a two-joint flick from the director of the delightful Dude, Where's My Car? about a pair of stoned losers and their trouble-fraught efforts to quench the munchies — will goose sales to some extent is a done deal, really. Constant repetition of the White Castle name in TV, radio and newspaper spots for the picture — and in movie reviews and columns like this one — amounts to a free North America-wide advertising blitz for the company's 392 locations.

There are many others out there as susceptible to suggestion as I, so any publicity is good publicity. And, unlike the McDonald's-bashing Super Size Me — which, for the record, had me craving (even dreaming about) Mickey D's french fries for weeks on end — this film is fairly affectionate in its dealings with the fast-food industry.

"When we saw the script, we saw it as a love letter to White Castle," the chain's marketing director, Jamie Richardson, told Advertising Age in May.

"From the get-go we saw this as something absolutely authentic. And it resonated in terms of the quest that the characters Harold and Kumar go on — basically the road trip from hell to satisfy their cravings for White Castle — is what we hear from thousands of customers each year."

White Castle didn't actually have anything to do with the making of Harold And Kumar beyond licensing its name to New Line Cinema, offering some "technical" details on what goes on at the restaurant and asking that the movie not give "the impression that the brand was in decline," so we're not witnessing the rise of fully embedded cinematic product placement here.

The filmmakers were, in fact, lucky to get White Castle on board. Originally, the Harold And Kumar script had two other characters in the film on the hunt for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, but the franchise panicked at the last minute over the film's lewd content and casual drug use and pulled its name out. A generic hot-dog stand was substituted.

White Castle, on the other hand, is being a commendably good sport about the whole thing, although Richardson spent much of last week stressing to numerous media outlets that the film's reefer-hazed content doesn't represent "White Castle values."

"While we might not endorse some of the behaviours, we approve of the spirit of the film," he told the Chicago Tribune. "There are a lot of good messages in it."

First and foremost among those messages is, no doubt: "Eat at White Castle." But who can blame the chain for biting; any fast-food retailer worth his (excess) salt must know that marijuana use is a boon to the industry.

As John Cho, Harold in the film, wryly observed last week: "They know who's in their drive-thru line." Pot has an amazing capacity sometimes to set off intensely specific yearnings in its users — I've made dozens of 4 a.m. trips to the 7-Eleven for Sour Skittles, for instance — much like those depicted in Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle.

One suspects a sizeable portion of the film's audience will be inclined to indulge before viewing (the movie's very content demands it, after all), so White Castle's decision to sign on for the project amounts to sage marketing. Locations near theatres could very well be overwhelmed by salivating stoners with burgers on the brain once the closing credits start rolling. Let's hope their beef reserves are fully stocked.

Harold And Kumar comes by its White Castle content as honestly as Being John Malkovich came by John Malkovich, but I'm still never quite sure how to feel about movies that rely on brands or products as major plot points.

Brands are a valid part of modern popular culture, as are the advertisements that try to persuade us to buy them. Even if your own experience with, say, Coca-Cola or General Electric or Proctor & Gamble extends no further than indignantly boycotting their wares, they are still part of the backdrop of your everyday life. You know the logos, you know the jingles, you know Mr. Clean is going to give you one of those knowing "I'm gay, but I'm not out yet" winks at the end of the ad. The stuff is inseparable from our cultural vocabulary.

Most of us have, at one time or another, been struck with the ridiculous, brand-specific cravings outlined above, so writing an entire movie around one of them is a stroke of twisted brilliance. Making Tom Hanks a FedEx courier in Castaway was likewise a defendable move since it's not beyond the realm of possibility that a FedEx courier could crash a plane loaded with FedEx packages on a deserted island.

What happens, though, when the companies approached demand artistic changes to make their brands look more favourable? Or when the companies themselves start bankrolling films to covertly advertise their wares or spiff up their images? Given the current pace of multinationalism, it might not be long before the screens are filled with crime-fighting Halliburton employees and tender-hearted sitcom dads who trade barbs with their precocious kids on the shooting range after a hard day's work forging handguns for Smith & Wesson.

Product placement is already rampant and we regularly get movies based on video games, Disney attractions and children's toys. It would be nice if the products themselves didn't become the stars. Although, I guess, one could argue that the stars themselves are basically products these days, so what does it matter one way or the other?

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