Chinese Audiences Bemused by 'Transformers: Age of Extinction' Product Placement

Transformers: Age of Extinction Still - H 2014
Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Age of Extinction Still - H 2014

In a full theater on a working Monday afternoon, a Beijing audience smiled at the proliferation of familiar products in the movie, but some were confused about people drinking Chinese energy drinks in Texas.

China loves Transformers: Age of Extinction more than any other movie: With a $93 million three-day opening, it's breaking records with every screening.

Yet, even in a country used to lengthy product placements in movies — see founding father Chairman Mao Zedong’s Omega watch in the propaganda movie Founding of a Great PartyTransformers: Age of Extinction is like the shopping channel for the new middle class, and the rich, in China.

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Ernst & Young estimates that between now and 2020, the number of middle-class households in China will grow from 300 million to 500 million. This is a market into which you want to place products.

The Hollywood Reporter visited a theater Monday for a screening of the movie, during which it appeared that one rich couple were taking notes as the Lamborghini bad-boy Transformer was introduced, though everyone in the audience was puzzled as to why Jack Reynor was drinking Chinese Red Bull in Texas. Is it even available there?

Culturally, some aspects did not translate. There was puzzlement in the audience when Reynor pulled out a laminated photocopy of a Texas legal loophole that meant his relationship with Nicola Peltz, who is 17 years old in the film while he is supposedly 20, does not come under statutory rape laws.

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The audience recognized Lenovo computers from previous installments, but there were some eyebrows raised at people drinking C'est Bon water, a local brand. Shuhua milk? And Chinese protein products? Construction Bank?

Possibly the weirdest product placement in the film, despite the proliferation of Stars and Stripes, is that for the Chinese political system, which is single-party, nondemocratic rule by the Communist Party.

In Age of Extinction, Thomas Lennon plays the U.S. Chief of Staff as a bumbling buffoon, repeatedly squashed by steely Kelsey Grammer. But the Chinese political figure in the movie is a resolute character whose role seems to be entirely superfluous to the plot, except to fulfill contractual agreements with investors Pangu Plaza, whose hotel features in the movie, and perhaps to appease Chinese censors.

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Is the message here that democracy is weak and ineffectual, whereas rule by the Communist Party, with its intolerance of dissent and its rule by diktat, is a better way of dealing with angry alien cyborgs, corrupt secret service officials or crazed corporate overreachers?

At another crucial moment, a Hong Kong policeman says, “We have to call the central government now,” which caused a few chuckles in the audience. (As did Stanley Tucci sucking on a local soy milk drink.)

Hong Kong, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997, and which is supposed to host the first open elections on Chinese soil within the next few years, is currently expressing its opposition to Beijing’s rule by staging demonstrations and holding online referendums. This has angered the Communist Party in Beijing, which does not like China’s richest city expressing its point of view so openly. On Tuesday, thousands marched in Hong Kong to mark 17 years since the handover and to express the territory’s autonomy.

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Transformers may even help Chinese companies break their way into the difficult U.S. market. Guangzhou Automobile Group, which operates manufacturing joint ventures with Toyota and Fiat, says that it plans to start exporting the Trumpchi GS5 SUV featured in Transformers: Age of Extinction to the United States.

“Our sponsorship of Transformers 4 will help more overseas dealers and consumers know about our cars, and over the long run it will greatly contribute to our branding,” Wu Song, head of the Trumpchi brand, told Bloomberg. “We want to start exporting to the U.S. as quickly as possible, and I am confident that they will find our Trumpchi cars competitive.”

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Apparently, director Michael Bay saw the Trumpchi E-Jet electric car at an auto show and asked the brand to participate.

One Chinese man who was dumped by his girlfriend seven years ago for being too poor spent $40,000 booking four whole IMAX cinemas for the first-day showings of Age of Extinction.

He then posted the receipts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, which is banned, presumably in case the Decepticons plan to try and attack China.