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Posted 6/21/2004 1:36 AM     Updated 6/21/2004 5:39 AM
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And co-starring United
NEW YORK — In the Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal, which opened Friday, Tom Hanks is a stateless European stranded in a JFK airport terminal and bombarded by a constant stream of ads from marketers such as Burger King.

The brands are taking the risk that the dozens of product placements in the film will turn off moviegoers, but one struggling company is happy to take that gamble: United Airlines.

The airline, operating under bankruptcy protection and still hoping for federal help, sifts through 100-plus film scripts a year looking for product-placement opportunities.

It couldn't ask for better placement than in a Spielberg/Hanks flick, says Jerry Dow, managing director of worldwide advertising and promotion.

"Movies centered around airline operations don't come along too often," says Dow.

Not to mention United did not have to pay. Roughly 90% of movie product placements are barter deals, where marketers swap products and other help for the exposure on the screen, says Aaron Gordon, president of entertainment marketing company Set Resources in Santa Monica, Calif.

Others typically involve marketers building promotions tied to the film in exchange for plugs in it.

Spielberg created the most famous product placement in screen history: Hershey's Reese's Pieces in his E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial in 1982.

The director has earned a reputation for treating brands "creatively and fairly," says Gordon, as in the sci-fi film, Minority Report, with Tom Cruise.

Spielberg practically makes United a supporting actor in his new DreamWorks movie:

• Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hanks' love interest, plays United flight attendant Amelia Warren.

• The first words in the film are a United boarding announcement.

• About 40 United employees from Los Angeles International appear as extras. So do United 747 planes and Red Carpet Clubs.

• United has been advising DreamWorks for 18 months, as well as providing employee uniforms, gate signs and logos.

Dow and other marketers say product placement adds movie realism with real products rather than Brand X stand-ins.

But critics say it's driving a growing "ad creep" into movie theaters, where many consumers now also have to sit through up to 20 minutes of commercials.

The magic names "Spielberg" and "Hanks" had marketers clamoring to get involved in The Terminal.

More than 40 spent millions of dollars building replicas of their restaurants and stores at a 200,000-square-foot former military hangar at Palmdale, Calif., that doubled for the transit lounge that Hanks' Viktor Navorski character turns into his home away from home.

Among companies: Burger King, Starbucks, Discovery, Nathan's, Baja Fresh and Auntie Anne's.

"This was the most companies that ever built their own stores for a single set. It was a humongous task," says Gordon.

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a Web site that battles unwanted marketing messages, thinks there's method to Spielberg's madness in having 40 companies' brands in his film.

"If Spielberg's point is that we're being bombarded by commercial messages in public spaces, then 40 is nothing," says Catlett. "Ads are everywhere we look. It's visual blight. "

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