Few movie characters are as iconic, controversial, contradictory, and enduring as James Bond. It doesn’t matter who’s playing him because you recognize the character immediately. Handsome man, sharp suit, smoking gun, vodka martini in hand, and an attractive woman on his arm.
James Bond has been the poster child for the spy and action genre since the Ian Fleming books written in the 1950s. But it was not till 1962 that we would see 007 come to life on the big screen, which is what he’s known for today.
This character has spanned over 25 films, and like his fellow British pop culture icon, he has regenerated several times. Unlike the Time Lords of Doctor Who, though, the identity of James Bond has remained remarkably close to his first iteration played by Sean Connery in Dr. No.
Every James Bond may be a little different, but like the TVA would say, they are all variants. Every Bond film has its own unique plot with its own spin, a bespoke marketing plan, and increasingly creative ways of doing product placement. But one thing remains the same: James Bond is a living billboard for suits, cars, booze, and exotic locales!
Without further ado, don your suit, get a martini (shaken not, stirred), and let’s talk about how James Bond has evolved and stayed relevant for 60 years.
How Sean Connery set the tone for James Bond for 60 years to come
In the great landscape of action movies, you could make a new Mt. Rushmore with the faces of all the Bonds over the years. Everything from his look, age, to his memorable one-liners are all part of his character (and thus his brand and product).
But did you know that a lot of what makes Bond, James Bond can be traced back to the OG himself? Let’s talk about Sean Connery.
Sean Connery originally was an iron-pumping bodybuilder who achieved third place in Mr. Universe. While at the show, a bodybuilder told him about an audition for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. He attended and worked his way up to a lead role.
While Sean Connery was working his way up, the producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli were trying to find the first James Bond. The producers first picked Cary Grant, but he was 58 and could only commit to one film. Next, they considered Patrick McGoohan, the star of Dangerman and The Prisoner. However, he was a devout Christian who wanted a PG standard of Bond. (Can you imagine?)
Multiple names passed through their lips for the first Bond including David Niven, Roger Moore (who wound up being the third Bond), and even Richard Todd. But none of the producers could agree on an actor, and thus The Daily Express decided to launch a contest: Find James Bond.
What happens next is the infamous lunch that changed Sean Connery’s life forever. Something about his disheveled, unkempt Scotsman look appealed to Broccolis’s wife, Dana, who told the producers to give him a chance.
During the lunch, Connery put on an assertive, reckless, and masculine act which got him the part, and as he left to go back to his car, Saltzman said, “He moved,” Saltzman recalled, “like a jungle cat.”
And it’s precisely this aggressive, dark, reckless persona that defined the first James Bond. He became one of those rare characters who was both interesting on a superficial level and on a deeper one.
He was capable of being suave and polite, but just below the surface, he was a dangerous, antagonistic, risk-taking, hard-drinking monster. You can see that push and pull in future bonds from Timothy Dalton to Daniel Craig.
The enduring symbols that make Bond movies instantly recognizable and timeless
Ian Fleming created the spy in the image of a WW2 British Secret Service agent updated to align with the 1960s male archetype. The basic outline of the character has remained the same for 60 years, albeit with some updates to keep current.
Every actor started playing James Bond at the age of 30-45 and then retired around or before 50, with the exception of Roger Moore who almost hit 60 years old while playing the role! You know he was an outlier, though, because in Roger Moore’s biography, he said he knew he had to leave when he realized he was older than the mother of the actress playing the leading lady in his final film, A View To Kill.
James Bond has always had a stylish suit, which was the standard dress code in the western world for the middle class and upper-class men in the 1960s, but is now considered more formal. Bond always takes it a step up by having the suits made bespoke, which oozes professionalism and shows off his figure. The image is powerful, and this clip from Bond parody, Kingsman: The Secret Service, does a great job of showing why this is.
In addition to his iconic look, James Bond is also known for cars. Really, really nice cars. From a Sunbeam Alpine in Dr. No to Aston Martin DB5 in No Time to Die, each car is classy and attractive which ties right back into who Bond is: classy and dangerous.
Bond’s reputation for driving cool cars is so well-established that every car James Bond drove in the movies saw its prices skyrocket. Even the closest person we have in real life to James Bond (or one of his villains), Elon Musk, was influenced by Bond to buy his next ride.
Aside from class, style, and action movie violence, there is one more thing that Bond is known for. It’s his most notable and questionable character trait: his sexual charm. Bond sleeps around a lot, and that’s part of the appeal. In the 1960s, this sexual dominance was considered a desirable male trait. Even through 60 years of social change, Bond’s sex drive has remained intact, but the movies have very understandably moved away from glorifying sexual assault to highlighting Bond’s complex and deeply flawed relationship with, well, relationships (particularly in Daniel Craig’s run).
Without a doubt, James Bond’s target audience is men and always has been. The movies are for men who yearn for adventure, snazzy suits, and flashy cars. It’s for men who want to vicariously enjoy being the one who always woos the women. It is overwhelmingly masculine, and it shows as 39% of men in the US have seen all the films compared to 19% of women.
How the James Bond franchise handled its greatest weakness: its mistreatment of women
“Bond Girls” are a huge part of Bond, for better or worse. It’s worth examining how the series has maintained Bond’s constant charm while deliberately distancing itself from a very problematic past.
Let’s just be straightforward: women, especially in early Bond movies, were portrayed as male fantasies and sex objects. This lasted from the 1960s and at least into the 1980s. However, from the 1990s, the portrayal of women has changed over time, casting women as both beautiful and capable.
This is in keeping with a modern and ongoing trend. A 2020 report found that 47.8 percent of lead actors in films that year were female, up by more than ten percent in just two years. That’s not really doable with James Bond, who is such an intrinsically male figure. But the movies are doing the next best thing – creating characters like Dame Judi Dench’s M and Lashana Lynch’s Nomi.
Sexism sold in the early sixties
When James Bond as a franchise began, it was before the sexual revolution, and in the case of the US, before the era of civil rights. Men were still dominant in their role in society and, it took about ten more years for second-wave feminism to take off. At the same time, film standards were being relaxed, which made it possible to show sex in the movies in the late 1960s and 1970s. There are no explicit sex scenes in the early James Bond films. We only see him get the women to bed, and then it is implied that he sleeps with them.
Behind the scenes of the first film, Zena Marshall described her role as Miss Taro in Dr. No as “this attractive little siren, and at the same time I was the spy, a bad woman”, who director Terence Young asked to play “not as Chinese, but a Mid-Atlantic woman who men dream about but is not real.” This alone cements that women in James Bond movies were designed as fantasy figures for men to fantasize about but never obtain. This unattainability has remained over 60 years, though modern portrayals are notably less offensive to modern viewers.
Case in point, the early James Bond was marketed as a man who could have his way with any woman, manhandling them, slapping them, and generally being very amoral. Needless to say, it’s a standard that society would deem problematic now. If you don’t believe me, here’s a 4-minute supercut of Bond slapping people, mostly women.
Now the point here is not to sit in judgment of the old movies. Rather, it’s interesting to see how Bond has kept a consistent character and brand as the world around him changes. Consider this survey from 2019, As many as 36% of the female respondents felt the old Bond Movies were very or somewhat offensive in their portrayal of women, with 30% of men feeling the same. That’s not a majority, but it’s a big enough problem to where the Bond films had to address the issue.
But how do you do that without ruining Bond?
How the James Bond franchise curtailed its sexism without diluting the aspects of the character that made him so appealing
In Goldfinger, released in 1964, James Bond cures a woman named Pussy Galore of her lesbianism. Can’t make this stuff up. In a letter from author Ian Fleming, he asserts that she “only needed the right man to come along … to cure her psycho-pathological malady.” Yikes.
That’s the history that James Bond as a franchise is dealing with. Pivoting away from that is no small task. But there were some underlying messages from old Bond movies like Goldfinger that could be played up in the future, which would both be consistent with Bond’s history and acceptable for the future. For example, the same “reformed” lesbian mentioned above was a career woman and sharp as a tack, qualities which were forward-thinking in 1964. Later Bond movies leaned more into that.
Jump forward to Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977. She and James Bond stand toe to toe in their mission objectives. And yes, Bond beds her, but she’s played like an equal. She was a femme fatale and not a damsel in distress. That is a step toward the moral sensibilities of today that still made sense within the context of Bond.
Then jump forward to 1995’s GoldenEye in which M, who is James Bond’s boss, is recast as a woman played by none other than Dame Judi Dench. She bluntly calls out James Bond for being a sexist, misogynist dinosaur. And it works. It works really well.
“I prefer Bourbon.” I love that subtle nudge where M is letting Bond know she is in charge. In turn, this sets the precedent that she and women will not be submissive to Bond anymore. This is the breakpoint that made it possible for the Bond of the 1960s – 1980s to become the Bond of the 2000s – 2020s. This is the precise moment where it became possible for Bond to have meaningful relationships with powerful women such as Vesper Lynd and Dr. Madeline Swann without it compromising anything that makes Bond the character, the franchise, or the brand work.
Changing with the times has paid off. Casino Royale raised over $600 million at the box office, Skyfall over $1.1 billion, and Spectre almost $900 million. Even the released-during-a-pandemic No Time to Die has made over three-quarters of a billion dollars.
How the James Bond franchise uses product placement to justify the huge production budgets
Bond movies are special partly because of how much they are loud and flashy spectacles. That has a lot to do with their enormous production budgets. Spectre cost $300 million, No Time to Die cost $250 million, Quantum of Solace cost $230 million, and Skyfall cost $200 million to make. Good grief.
Now box office receipts are one good way to make money, but it’s not the only one. Bond movies are so expensive that they use product placement partly to justify making them. Bond leverages his cool persona to sell products, which then gives the movie studios more money to make cooler movies to sell products…
Watching James Bond, you naturally wonder what James Bond is wearing, drinking, and driving. It is perfectly normal because James Bond is a walking, driving, talking product placement machine.
Brand endorsement is ingrained within the film industry and it dates back to the 1960s Bond films. Back then, they had an average of about 5 product placements and, by 2010 there were 30 product placements. That’s a huge jump in brand endorsement throughout the films.
Now, this doesn’t always work. One of the most egregious forms of product placement is found in Moonraker, where an absurd amount of scenes contain billboards. They spent a lot of money on special effects as Bond went to space. This attempt to capitalize on the space race backfired badly, making Moonraker look bad compared to such small indie films as Star Wars.
But for the most part, brand endorsements in Bond work, at least from a business perspective. Bond has even, in some scenes, memorably traded in vodka martinis for Heineken beer, such as in Skyfall where his beer consumption is used as a way to show how far he had fallen.
Even if the product placement makes better sense within the plot than the Moonraker days, don’t be fooled. It’s all about the cold hard cash. To quote Daniel Craig:
A movie like this costs $118 million [£73 million] to make – it’s the nature of it, the size of the movie. And it costs another $200 million [£124 million] to sell it. So the $200 million has to come from somewhere.
Of course, when James Bond isn’t drinking, he will be driving. There are a plethora of vehicles in the movies with the most prominent brand being Aston Martin. This makes sense as 90% of Aston Martin owners are male, matching Bond’s die-hard male audience.
Product placement is so much of a given in Bond movies that anything that threatens it can also threaten the movie. It’s no secret that companies want marketing messages like product placement timed for maximum impact. When No Time to Die was delayed due to the pandemic, it caused havoc with product placement, which in some instances was dated upon release of the movie, such as new Nokia phones.
It’s not just brands that are looking for endorsements from 007. Whole countries are paying the movie franchise to be included, such as Norway which paid £4.2m to be featured in No Time to Die. It’s incredible how far brands will go to be included in the Bondaverse.
James Bond has remained a powerful symbol since his debut movie in 1962. He started as a suave, amoral male fantasy in the sixties and the basic essence of that remains the same today. Even as the character and film series have changed to suit changing times and morals, Bond the brand remains remarkably consistent and relevant.
Bond’s ability to both keep the core appeal constant while changing is why we’re still watching his movies in theaters today. It’s why Skyfall was able to make over a billion dollars, and it’s why every advertiser in the known world wants to place their products in his movies. This is really impressive, period. It’s even more so when you look back at less-flattering parts of the franchise’s history.
Now with Daniel Craig’s departure, we’re all wondering who is going to take up the mantle of Bond next. Maybe we should all just sit back, relax, open a refreshing Heineken, and watch what happens next.