The Industry of Product Placement


“When people read a magazine, watch a TV show, or use any other ad-sponsored medium, then they are entering a world that was constructed as a result of close cooperation between advertisers and media firms”.


How Does It Work?

Producers of mass culture unite on screen. The producers of films that we often look to as reflections of parts of our own lives or informants of others’ realities and the producers of goods that we often choose based on their cultural meaning come together in a symbiotic relationship to fulfill the desire of mass culture to know itself.

Getting a product some airtime can be a lengthy and unpredictable process. Only the largest, most successful companies have direct connection with large studios so that they may circumvent the relatively new industry of product placement agencies. These middlemen attract companies with their promises of favorable placements. Agents get on the phone with studios looking over a script to decide where one of their client’s products might fit into a film.

The September 1996 issue of Brandweek gives some advice for companies trying to find a suitable Hollywood product placement representative:

“In trying to spot a disreputable operator, perhaps the most ominous warning sign is the person who promises to get you in a certain movie. Another flashing red light can be the outfit looking for a one shot deal instead of a long-term relationship. The top films usually draw a flat annual fee with a target of so many placements in the course of a year.”

The industry’s middle men not only attempt to interfuse their clients into appropiate scripts, these also attempt to keep their client’s product out of unfavorable placements. For instance, some products don’t want to be connected with the movie’s bad guy, or with the death of a character. In other circumstances, alcholic beverage companies’ representatives are careful that their client’s product is not being consumed by or around minors.

How do the studios benefit?

As studios face increasing costs, they often are very eager to make benefitial connections with corporations hoping to place their products in a particular film . While sometimes there are direct payments for product placement (for instance in License to Kill Phillip Morris Tobacco paid $350,000 for Bond to smoke a Lark cigarette), the “payment” for placement is most often the donation or loaning of products to the set. For instance, the prop master for a movie may contact marketing agencies to connect them with a company interested in donating goods, often expensive goods, like vehicles or computers. The location designer on the set might hope to find a company that will “donate” a set location, for instance if the script calls for a scene in a fast food restaurant, the designer might try to get McDonald’s or Taco Bell on the phone to rent out a restaurant for filming.

Movies also save money through product placement by receiving free exposure through product tie-ins. For instance, the film Men in Black has its two main actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith sporting Ray Ban sunglasses. Ray Ban, leading up to the film and then in the film’s release held many promotional tie-ins.

Finally, besides benefiting financially, it can be argued that the use of real products strengthens the ‘reality’ of the film. While films with a lot of product placements are often seen as sacrificing art for ads, it is also argued that the use of products that consumers are already familiar with increases the credibility and power of the film as something that they can identify with. By using brands that are cultural icons, like coke, malboro cigarettes, nike, that the audience has a shared idea of the type of person using that particular product.

How do the producers of the product benefit?

Back in 1988, Marketing and Media decisions alluded to the growing trend towards product placement:

“Media buyers remain skittish about urging advertisers to hop aboard an alternative whose effectiveness is tough to document.”

Not so anymore. Times have changed as more and more companies are realizing the benefits to product placement. The benefits for the company marketing the product depend on how well the product is placed and how much exposure it receives in the film as well as how well the film does in the box office. Film is a powerful media for product placement do to its overwhelming clout overall in the entertainment industry. It has many consumers. Just as magazine articles or tv shows are written to connect advertisers with potential buyers, film has increasingly become a means to connect the viewer, the potential consumer with the product. The North American audience for films numbers 1.2 billion, internationally 2.4 billion. How else can a company gain that kind of exposure? Purchasing actual air time in the form of commercials is too expensive for many companies; a 30 second commercial during the Super Bowl may be seen by over 100 million viewers worldwide, but it also costs over 2 million dollars for a 30 second spot that viewers may miss going to the kitchen for more chips. Since many companies can get their product exposure in a film by donating props or goods (food for the crew for instance), product placement can often be the best for the companies buck.

The best product placements are the ones where the product is interwoven so well that it is needed for the film’s storyline. For instance, in You’ve Got Mail, AOL is practically a member of the supporting cast; just as Wilson, the volleyball in Castaway, comes to life as Tom Hanks only friend on a deserted island. BMW for instance profits from every James Bond film as he always drives a BMW.

Such placements are not always common; there are different levels of exposure. A good placement involves the characters directly using the product or verbally recognizing it. For instance, in Forrest Gump, when Forrest goes to the All-American ceremony at the White House he drinks large quanities of Dr. Pepper. It does not come off as a shameless promotion because the consumption of the product creates the funny confrontation between Forrest and President Kennedy, as Forrest says, “I got to pee”.

The next level down, the implied endorsement is more ambigious and indirect. The product might be in close proximity to the characters but is not handled or consumed. This type of endorsement hopes that the audience will automatically connect the product with the character even if the character is not actually seen using it.

Finally, product placement in film at it’s smallest levels is referred to as “signage” as is merely the placement of a product logo in the background in a way that has little relevance to the action of the film or the characters. For instance, in Grease there is a coke sign in the background but it is not clear that coke is being consumed.

Companies are increasingly feeling the need to broaden their marketing campaigns to include product placement in film or tv in order to confirm the product’s brand identity or to affectively reach different audiences.

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