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By July 16, Paramount’s Transformers: Age of Extinction had earned 1.82 billion yuan (US $290 million) in only 20 days of release on China’s mainland, surpassing the box office numbers from all the previous Transformers movies. Nevertheless, Chinese media reported more about its product placement than box office performance, plot or special effects. Even a Chinese snack that is hardly-known outside the country called Zhou Hei Ya (Zhou’s Black Duck) scored a major appearance. Some joked that the film transformed product placement to China, and that it exclaims “Chinese ads, transform and roll out” rather than “Autobots, transform and roll out!”
Actually, it wasn’t even the first appearance of Chinese product placement in the Transformers franchise. In 2009, Metersbonwe, a Chinese clothing brand, made a showing in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, inspiring envy in competing brands. Eye-catching logos of both Metersbonwe and TCL, a home electronics brand, could be seen on main villain of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and an Asian face even spoke the words, “It's shuhua milk (a Chinese brand)” with the carton in his hand. ThinkPadEdge, Lenovo’s latest computer offering, transformed into a small robot in the movie, helping boost its sales by 30 percent the month the film was in theaters.
This explains why Paramount was shocked by Chinese enterprises’ passion during placement bidding for Transformers: Age of Extinction: More than a dozen famous Chinese enterprises, mostly from sectors of IT, cars and consumer products, made bids. Some of their ideas were rejected by Paramount. Zhou’s Black Duck, for example, hoped to be depicted feeding transformers their duck necks, but the production team insisted that robots don’t eat. However, the products still made a cameo in a refrigerator.
Product placement has seldom been a problem for Michael Bay, who began as an ad director. He is of the opinion that nobody cares much about it as long as the movie is entertaining. Most big-budget superhero films such as Batman, Spider-man, and Iron Man rely on heavy product placement to help offset their massive costs. The vehicles used in Transformers: Age of Extinction, for instance, cost a total of US$20 million. Chinese ads each contributed at least a million dollars.
Chinese enterprises collaborated with Paramount in two main ways: product placement and copyrights. For product placement, sponsors would rather pay by the second like they do on TV, which doesn’t work in movies because the rhythm is too quick to allow a long pause on their logo.