Sunday, 1 April 2012

Michael Power

Product placement was taken to a whole new level in 2003, when a character used by Guinness to boost sales in Africa made his way from TV screens and billboards to starring in a 110 minute feature film.

So synonymous is model and actor Cleveland Mitchell with the role of Michael Power both on screen and off that not many people realise he's entirely fictional. Mitchell didn’t even get credited as an actor in his starring debut.

Filmed over three months in 40 locations in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, Critical Assignment (2004) opens with the words “Michael Power in” and in the closing credits both character and performer share the same name to maintain the charade.

Of course Michael Power is not the only advertising character to get his own movie. Around the same time as Critical Assignment came out, Rowan Atkinson starred in Johnny English (Peter Howitt, 2003), based on a character created for a campaign to promote Barclaycard between 1991 and 1997. Created by marketing company Saatchi & Saatchi for Diageo, Guinness’s parent company, Power is a handsome, charming, crusading journalist of intentionally ambiguous origin. He’s usually seen dressed in cool black, fearlessly confronting injustice.

What distinguishes Critical Assignment, a British/African co-production, is the fact that it was directly connected to an advertising campaign. Johnny English was called Richard Latham in the 17 ads in which he appeared and didn’t use a Barclaycard in the film. But Michael Power stops every once in a while to enjoy some Guinness with friends (specifically at the 14, 30, 63 & 98 minute points).

Bill Britt reported on the film for Advertising Age and quoted executive producer Celia Couchman, responsible for the original ad campaign, as saying "Product placement only occurs where it's right for the story." Surprisingly, it's not as in your face as in the James Bond films it's clearly inspired by.

The BBC, who broadcast the film in 2008 (it’s never been properly released in the UK), observed when reporting on the premiere that while there is some topical subject matter it sometimes seems “like a promotional film for the African tourist board - a montage of bustling city streets, colourful market scenes, wildlife and culture. Our hero even finds time to go on safari.”

Stripped of the context of an iconic advertising campaign, it is Africa and not Guinness that viewers outside of Africa think of when the film is over.More prominent than the product placement is a message about the desperate need for clean drinking water in Africa. This is an example of Diageo’s “corporate social responsibility” in action and the sentiment is reinforced by a closing message from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). But while director Jason Xenopoulos’s film is attractive and stylish, just like Power himself it's all surface, no real depth.

There’s a lot that’s interesting about Critical Assignment but it’s not a great film. The convoluted plot is uninvolving and at times feels more like a TV movie than the blockbuster action film with a conscience it clearly wants to be.

The journey to expose corruption is a long and familiar one and the film is very light on action. Power gets involved in a foot chase across a rooftop and later borrows a motorcycle to pursue a kidnapper, a chase in which a Guinness truck plays a small but important role, but most of the time he goes from one place to another and smiles a lot. It’s no On Deadly Ground (Steven Seagal, 2004).

Beyond playing the role of Michael Power, Cleveland Mitchell has remained anonymous to international audiences. Although he worked with director Xenopoulos again in the ambitious London under water drama Flood (2008), it was in the insubstantial role of “Armed Policeman” and it would seem even bit parts have not been coming his way since.

As for Michael Power, he seems to have retired.