Product placement is form of advertising where brands appear in media such as film, television, and video games. Product placement stands out as a marketing strategy because it is the most direct attempt to derive commercial benefit from ‘the context and environment within which the product is displayed or used.’ The technique can be beneficial for viewers, since interruptive advertising removes them from the entertainment.
According to PQ Media, a consulting firm that tracks alternative media spending, 2014 product placement expenditures were estimated at $10.58 billion, rising 13.6% year-over-year, and global branded entertainment growth reached $73.27 billion. The firm noted that brand marketers are seeking improved methods to engage younger audiences used to ad-skipping and on-demand media usage, and branded entertainment provides omnichannel possibilities to more effectively engage post-boomers, particularly Millennials.
Product placement began in the nineteenth century. By the time Jules Verne published the adventure novel ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (1873), his fame had led transport and shipping companies to lobby to be mentioned in the story. Whether Verne was actually paid to do so, however, remains unknown. With the arrival of photo-rich periodicals in the late 19th century, publishers found ways of lifting their paper’s reputation by placing an actual copy of the magazine in photographs of prominent people. For example, the German magazine ‘Die Woche’ (‘The Week’) in 1902 printed an article about a countess in her castle where she, in one of the photographs, held a copy of the periodical in her hands.
Product placement was a common feature of many of the earliest actualities (proto-documentary films) and cinematic attractions that were popular in the first ten years of cinema history. During the next four decades, ‘Harrison’s Reports’ (an early motion picture trade journal) frequently cited cases of on-screen brand-name products. He condemned the practice as harmful to movie theaters. An editorial in Harrison’s Reports criticized the collaboration between the Corona Typewriter company and First National Pictures when a Corona appeared prominently in the film ‘The Lost World’ (1925), among others.
Before films were even narrative forms in the sense that they are recognized today, audiences attended films as ‘fairground attractions,’ interesting for their then-amazing visual effects. This format was better suited to product placement than narrative cinema. Early cinematic attractions had more in common with television advertisements in the 1950s than they do with traditional films. As a result, the relationship between cinema and advertising is intertwined, suggesting that cinema was in part the result of advertising and the economic advantage that it provided early film makers.
In many cases no payment is made for product exposure and no promise of marketing support is made when consumer brands appear in movies. Film productions need props for scenes, so each movie’s property master contacts product placement middlemen agencies or product companies directly. In addition to items for on-screen use, the product/service supplier might provide a production with large quantities of complementary products or services. Tapping product placement channels can be particularly valuable for movies when a vintage product is required—such as a sign or bottle—that is not readily available.
One of the earliest examples is ‘The Garage,’ a Buster Keaton/’Fatty’ Arbuckle comedy which featured the logo of Red Crown gasoline in several scenes (although there is no definitive proof that this product placement was paid for). Fritz Lang’s ‘Dr. Mabuse the Gambler’ (1922) contained a prominent title card in the opening credits reading ‘The gowns of the female stars were designed by Vally Reinecke and made in the fashion studios of Flatow-Schädler und Mossner.’ ‘Wings’ (1927), the first to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, contained a plug for Hershey’s chocolate.
Another early example occurs in ‘Horse Feathers’ (1932), wherein Thelma Todd’s character falls out of a canoe and into a river. She calls for a ‘life saver’ and Groucho Marx tosses her a Life Savers candy. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946) depicts a young boy with aspirations to be an explorer, displaying a prominent copy of ‘National Geographic.’ In ‘Love Happy’ (1949), a Marx Brothers comedy, Harpo cavorts on a rooftop among various billboards and at one point escapes from the villains on the old Mobil logo, the ‘Flying Red Horse.’
The film ‘E.T.’ is often cited for its multiple, obvious placements, particularly Reese’s Pieces, which was chosen after M&M declined to be involved in the film. In ‘Superman: The Movie’ Clark Kent eats Cheerios for breakfast in Smallville. In the climax of the film’s sequel, Superman crashes into a giant Coca-Cola advertisement and saves a bus-full of people bearing an ad for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ‘Evita,’ before he smashes into a Marlboro delivery truck. ‘Jurassic Park’ not only prominently features Ford cars and other commercial products, but also includes a scene displaying its own promotional merchandise. One shot shows the ‘Jurassic Park Souvenir Store,’ with products that it offered for sale to fans.
In the film ‘Cast Away’ in which the lead character is a FedEx employee, references to the delivery company are in nearly every scene in the film. The ‘Lego Movie’ is an example of a film where product placement is part of the overarching theme of the production itself. 20th Century Fox regularly uses their sister ‘Fox News’ and ‘Sky News’ channels in their films by including it as a plot device when characters view news broadcasts.
In other early media, e.g., radio in the 1930s and 1940s and television in the 1950s, programs were often underwritten by companies. Soap operas were so-named because they were initially underwritten by consumer packaged goods companies such as Procter & Gamble or Unilever. When television began to displace radio, ‘DuMont’s Cavalcade of Stars’ television show was, in its era, notable for not relying on a sole sponsor. Sponsorship continues with programs being sponsored by major vendors such as the Hallmark Hall of Fame series of made-for-TV movies.
Placements fall into two categories: those that are donated to reduce production costs and those placed in exchange for compensation. These categories are further divided into basic and advanced placements. The former is when the logo of an object or a brand name is visible but the characters don’t draw attention to the brand. The latter is when the product or brand is mentioned by name by characters in the show or movie.
Barter and service deals (mobile phones provided for crew use, for instance) are also common practices. Content providers may trade product placements for help funding advertisements tied-in with a film’s release, a show’s new season or other event. A variant of product placement is advertisement placement. In this case an advertisement for the product (rather than the product itself) is production. Examples include a Lucky Strike cigarette advertisement on a billboard or a truck with a milk advertisement on its trailer.
Digital technologies have made dynamic or switchable placements possible. Current product placements can be added to older programs when rerun or released on video. Examples include ‘Numb3rs’ and ‘Still Standing’; where a scene may be originally shot with a blank table, with sponsored products digitally added, possibly for each airing. Placements can be customized based upon factors such as demographics, psychographics, or behavioral information about the consumer. In-game advertising vendors such as Massive Incorporated transmit user information to their servers, such as individual player IDs and data about what was on the screen and for how long, enabling user-specific placements.
A variant of product placement is ‘brand integration,’ where ‘the product or company name becomes part of the show in such a way that it contributes to the narrative and creates an environment of brand awareness beyond that produced by advanced placement.’ While this type of advertising is common on unscripted shows such as ‘The Apprentice,’ it can also be used in scripted television. For example, on ‘All My Children’ one character took a job at Revlon, and the cosmetics company became part of the character’s development.
According to Danny Boyle, director of film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), filmmakers use ‘product displacement’ to accommodate sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz that refused to allow their products to be used in non-flattering settings. While Mercedes did not mind having a gangster driving their cars, they objected to their products being shown in a slum. The makers removed logos digitally in post-production, costing ‘tens of thousands of pounds.’ When such issues are brought up in advance of filming, production companies often resort to ‘greeking,’ the practice of simply covering logos with tape.
‘Cars’ (2006) parodies NASCAR, an advertising-heavy sport which controversially had long allowed alcohol and tobacco sponsorships. NASCAR’s sponsors were replaced with fictional or parody brands; Dinoco Oil takes pride of place, followed by a string of invented automotive aftermarket products positioned as pharmacy or medical brands. ‘Dale Earnhardt Inc.’ displaced sponsor Budweiser to avoid advertising beer in a Disney feature. NASCAR’s former ‘Winston Cup’ trophy became the Piston Cup, removing a tobacco advertisement.
Ghostbusters had a faux product in the climax of the film when the team faces the ‘Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.’ ‘The Truman Show’ utilized faux placements to advance the narrative of the reality television set. The protagonist’s wife places products in front of hidden cameras, even naming them in dialogue with her husband. This increases Truman’s suspicions as he comes to realize his surroundings are intentionally fabricated.
Some filmmakers created fictional products that appear in multiple movies. Examples include Kevin Smith (Nails Cigarettes, Mooby Corporation, Chewlees Gum, Discreeto Burritos) and Quentin Tarantino (Red Apple Cigarettes, Jack Rabbit Slim’s Restaurants, Big Kahuna Burger). This went even further with the fictional brand Binford Tools which appeared TV show ‘Home Improvement’ and in the movie franchise ‘Toy Story,’ both starring Tim Allen. This practice is also common in certain ‘reality-based’ video games such as the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series, which feature fictitious stores such as Ammu-Nation, Vinyl Countdown, Gash (spoofing Gap) Zip, Pizza Boy, etc.
So-called ‘reverse product placement’ creates real products to match those seen in a fictional setting. For example, in 2007, 7-Eleven rebranded 11 of its American stores and one Canadian store as ‘Kwik-E-Marts,’ selling versions of products seen in episodes of the ‘The Simpsons,’ such as Squishee frozen drinks, Buzz Cola and Krusty-O’s cereal. In 1997, Acme Communications was created as a chain of real television stations; the firm is named for the fictional Acme Corporation of Warner Brothers fame. ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ (1971) led to a real Willy Wonka candy company, established soon after the film’s release.
In music, Rihanna’s 2007 song “Umbrella” led Totes to produce several umbrellas tied to the song. While radio and television stations are regulated by national governments, producers of printed or recorded works typically aren’t, leading marketers to attempt to get products mentioned in lyrics of popular songs. Chris Brown’s 2008 hit “Forever” “Forever” is actually an extended version of a commercial jingle for Doublemint gum, commissioned by an advertising company working for Wrigley. Brown first created the short version for the commercial, then extended and amended it into a full song during a recording session in February 2008, which was paid for by the gum company. In 2010, a video for Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ was panned by critics for displaying nine brands in nine minutes (including her own line of Heartbeats headphones), many as paid product placements.
In US Sports, while now-defunct NFL Europe allowed liberal use of team uniforms by sponsors, the main National Football League (NFL) does not. For instance, the league prohibits logos of sponsors painted onto the fields, although Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, has their stadium’s logomark painted onto the FieldTurf field. In 2008, the league allowed sponsors on the practice jerseys of the uniforms, but not game uniforms. In 1991, the league started allowing uniform suppliers to display their logos on their NFL-related products. Since 2012, Nike has been the league’s official uniform supplier.
Two of the league’s flagship teams—the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers—early on adopted their identity from corporate sponsors. The Packers adopted the name ‘Packers’ because they were sponsored by the Indian Packing Company. They later had ‘ACME PACKERS’ written on their uniforms in the early 1920s after the Acme Packing Company bought Indian Packing. The Steelers adopted their current logo in 1962 as a product-placement deal with the American Iron and Steel Institute, which owned the rights to the Steelmark logo. The Steelers later were allowed to add ‘-ers’ to the Steelmark logo the following year so that they could own a trademark on the logo. (The Steelers’ pre-NFL predecessors also regularly sold naming rights to companies in the Pittsburgh area.)
In automobile racing, the concept of the factory-backed contestant, who is provided with vehicles and technical support in return for the car’s manufacturer obtaining visibility for its products in competition, dates in NASCAR to the 1950s and Marshall Teague’s factory-backed Fabulous Hudson Hornet. ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was once a common adage among automakers.
A TV or film studio does not need permission to display or mention products or service in media form. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ uses a Cheesecake Factory outlet as a setting. As no compensation is exchanged, ‘promotional considerations’ do not apply. Much of US broadcast law pertaining to on-air product promotion dates to the payola scandals of 1950s broadcast radio. An investigation launched in November 1959 into allegations that some radio disc jockeys had accepted bribes in return for radio airplay ended with a US$2,500 fine for disc jockey Alan Freed (of WABC and WINS) for violating commercial bribery laws. Payola was banned outright the following year, and the law required that all paid promotions are disclosed.
As with most marketing tactics, product placement leads to explicit as well as implicit advertising effects. Explicit effects can be observed directly and are usually visible by higher recall scores. They are highly connected to the conscious mind. Implicit effects can be observed by a change in behavior – like a higher purchase intention. They are fully based on the subconscious mind. Implicit effects are more relevant for purchase decisions and therefore more valuable than explicit reactions. The better the product placement fits the surrounding content, the better the implicit effectiveness (like attitude or purchase-intention) will be.
After viewing a ‘Seinfeld’ episode with visual, auditory and audiovisual product placements, a recall task indicated that audiovisual product placements were recalled the best, visual product placements somewhat less, and audio placements least. In a recognition test audiovisual was still remembered the best but audio placements were remembered second best and visual placements were remembered third best. As indicated, the type of placement that is most effective seems to vary depending on task, but audiovisual placements seem to be often the most effective. However, audiovisual product placements are not remembered best when there are more than one audiovisual placement at once, making it hard to remember each one. In case the placement is only on the audio level, it much be very prominent to get any effect at all.
Product placement perceived to disrupt a movie, especially when repeated, were found in one study to be counterproductive. Moderate repetition of subtle product placements did not increase people’s feelings on distraction. Products that are integrated within the plot of a movie improve recall, although not if more than one product is shown at a time. In one study placements connected to the story were recognized most often, products used by the main character were remembered less often and products in the background were remembered least often. Also, products placed in the first half of a movie tend to be remembered better than products in the second half of a movie, which demonstrates the primacy effect.
‘I, Robot’ had placements for Converse, Ovaltine, Audi, FedEx, Dos Equis and JVC among others, all of them introduced within the film’s first ten minutes. One moment includes a straightforward advertisement in which Will Smith’s character responds to a compliment about his shoes, to which he replies ‘Converse All-Stars, vintage 2004’ (the year of the film’s release). Audi also created a special car for the film, the Audi RSQ. Surveys conducted in the US showed that the placements boosted the brand’s image. The Audi RSQ appears for nine minutes, and other Audis also appear in the film.