“Cast Away,” FedEx and the Ultimate Product Placement

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, December 22, 2000

While Tom Hanks spends much of his new film “Cast Away” alone on screen, his official co-star is Helen Hunt, who plays the woman whose memory keeps him alive on his deserted South Pacific island.

But by the end of the movie, which opens today in Sacramento, it becomes clear that Hanks’ real co-star isn’t an actress at all: It’s FedEx.

Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a FedEx troubleshooter whose life runs by the clock. He warns employees not to commit “the sin of losing track of time,” and his life is colored by the orange-and-purple logo of FedEx.

When Noland’s FedEx plane goes down in the Pacific, he is cast away on a deserted island. Even there, FedEx is present, in the few packages from the plane that float up on the beach and provide him with tools, companionship (in the form of a volleyball he names “Wilson”) and even a purpose to keep him alive.

But the FedEx slogan, “The World On Time,” suddenly is cast in an entirely different context.

On first glance, this is the most ambitious and complex product placement ever.

Reese’s Pieces in “ET” and Calvin Klein jeans in “Back to the Future” have nothing on FedEx, which fills nearly every frame of the film.

Yet FedEx is more than a product. It is, in a very substantial way, a character in the movie.

Gail Christensen is managing director of global brand management at FedEx, and she oversaw the brand’s involvement in “Cast Away” for two years. She says that the company saw the potential at once.

“As we stepped back and looked at it, we thought, ‘It’s not product placement, we’re a character in this movie.’ It’s not just a FedEx product on the screen. It transcends product placement.

“We’ve been in several movies; we look at the scripts and decide, and usually it’s very simple,” she adds. “The other requests we’ve received were easy to say yes or no to, but this took a lot more thought.”

A plane painted with the company logo crashing into the Pacific is not something many corporations would countenance. (For the record, Christensen says FedEx has had no fatal crashes.) But FedEx went ahead with it anyway.

“We thought about everything, as you can imagine,” says Christensen. “We looked at the entire movie, all the nuances of the script, not just one event. And then we made our decision to go with it. It was a different type of decision, but we think it will help our brand.”

Screenwriter William Broyles Jr., who wrote the screenplay with substantial input from Hanks over the years since the two worked together on “Apollo 13” in 1994, says that FedEx became a “character” in the film very early on.

“FedEx seemed like the perfect modern company,” Broyles says from his office in Austin, Texas. “You wouldn’t need to set up any screen time trying to explain who Chuck was. Of course he lived by the clock and deadlines, of course he worked to connect people – so we could get that covered right away.”

Other, more-subtle associations give the themes of the movie a greater resonance, and transform the presence of FedEx from product placement to a part of the movie’s art.

The movie’s larger message – that one has no control over how one’s life unfolds, and that letting go of that control is the key to survival – would seem to conflict with the message of a company whose purpose is to rise above the petty limits of time and space, to give people anything they want mere hours after they decide they want it.

Broyles agrees.

“Federal Express represents a world in contrast to the island,” he says. “It is extraordinarily complex, world-spanning, and it ends isolation, it connects anyone to anyone. The island is isolation.

“FedEx is emblematic of how we all live.”

Broyles insists that that message is not an indictment of FedEx, or even of modern life in general.

“It’s more that all of us who live these lives on planes with laptops and schedules and Palm Pilots, we all live this modern life in the expectation that there will be medical care, lights, fire … that’s all of us, not just a FedEx employee.”

FedEx knew that it would be used as an exemplar of the modern world, and that it also would be used to show how that modern world can fall apart. And that is partly what makes this such a brave move. Because, although the company provided trucks, packages and uniforms, and even some extras for scenes in the company’s Memphis headquarters, no money exchanged hands between Fox and FedEx, and the company had no control over the script.

FedEx’s Christensen notes, for instance, that the film’s representation of a chaotic Russian FedEx operation “is not what our Moscow operations are like.” But, she adds, “This is creative license. We knew what was in the script, but we were able to step back and understand that some things were stretched for dramatic effect.”

For his part, Broyles, who was the editor of Newsweek before he began writing screenplays, had to resist making easy points off the “FedEx mindset” when he was writing the script. But that was not because he didn’t want to offend FedEx.

“The easy dramatic thing would be to take a character whose life is screwed up and then give him this experience that changes him,” he says. “But Chuck likes his job and does it well; he has a good relationship with the woman he loves.”

On the other hand, says Broyles, “What would be the point of his journey if he came back to the life he left? So we wanted him to face a disappointment in his real life that would show how much he’d grown in those four years.”

We won’t ruin the film by going into that disappointment. It suffices to say that Chuck Noland comes home a changed man to a different life. Yet in some ways, he hasn’t changed at all.

In fact, notes Broyles, “The FedEx ethic is still with him at the end. The last thing he does is deliver the package.”

That package, emblazoned with wings drawn by the sender, is the only one he doesn’t open while on the island. “Chuck opens the packages at the point where he has to face the fact that he’s not going to be rescued, and he has to get serious,” says Broyles.

But the unopened package becomes a touchstone of sorts for Noland, and for the audience. It offers him hope, and gives the audience hope for the character.

“His life is so desperate, and there’s this beautiful thing that someone went to all the trouble to draw on this package,” says Broyles. “It’s a piece of art, something beautiful, and the fact that it is wings plays to a lot of things for him.”

That package leads Noland out of the nowhere of his distant past into a new future that is only hinted at in the movie. He is now a man who knows who he is, and understands what is important.

“From the beginning of writing, I always had this image of the truck in the beginning, in the middle of nowhere, and at the end, out in the middle of nowhere,” says Broyles. “But by the end of the movie, after he’s been on the island, you realize that this ‘middle of nowhere’ is really somewhere.”