The Delicate Art of Product Placement Advertising

How brands grab you by your subconscious

Hands tying the Converse sneaker in
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Product placement lets you reach your target audience in a more subtle way in this age of commercial-skipping and ad blindness. It's the promotion of branded goods and services within the context of a show or movie rather than as an explicit advertisement.

The company behind the product often pays to have their brand appear on screen so you see their product or service on a TV show or in a motion picture.

It's Nothing New

Also known as embedded marketing or advertising, this practice has actually been around for decades. Marketers have just become much more sophisticated in the ways they use it.

Once a very obvious form of sponsorship, product placement can now fly under the radar. You might barely notice that every car used in the movie or show is from the same automaker, or that everyone on a TV show is drinking the same brand of soft drink.

The Costs of Product Placement Opportunities

"Man of Steel" was a huge hit, spawning "Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice" and rebooting the whole Justice League franchise. It also took in a staggering $160 million in funding from the use of product placement. This money came from over 100 global partners that all paid healthy sums to have their brands featured in the Superman mega-hit.

They included Warby Parker, which offered Clark Kent-inspired glasses, and Gillette, which created a video series on Superman shaving. Walmart, Hershey's Twizzlers, Chrysler, Sears Roebuck & Co., Army National Guard, Kellogg Co., Nokia, Hardee's, and Carl's Jr. all bought in as well. Perhaps only "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" had a more saturated marketing campaign. 

Ford paid around $14 million to have James Bond drive the Ford Mondeo in "Casino Royale," and it was on screen for barely three minutes. That equates to over $78,000 per second.

But there are no specific costs associated with product placement. It's negotiated between the show and the brand, but it is becoming more expensive each year. 

Product Placement in the Movies

Some product placement scenes in movies are more notorious than others.

Screenshot of the Reese's Pieces scene in ET
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial Reese's Pieces Scene.

Reese's Pieces in "E.T. The Extra Terrestrial" (1982): Of course, companies would leap for joy if Steven Spielberg asked them to place their products in one of his movies these days, but product placement wasn't the giant in 1982 that it is today.

Hershey, the owner of M&Ms, placed demands on the studio for allowing its goodies to be featured, including seeing a final script before filming even began. The studio said no and Reese’s Pieces was offered the deal instead…for zero dollars.

Reese's did spend around $1 million to promote the movie, however, which works out to around $2.5 million today. That was actually quite a bargain, however, because they saw a 65% increase in sales.

Screenshot of BMW Mini Coopers in The Italian Job
The Italian Job BMW Mini Cooper Scene.

BMW Mini Cooper in "The Italian Job" (2003): An inferior version of the classic 1969 film featuring Michael Caine, Noël Coward, and Benny Hill, the 2003 remake still had a lot going for it. The original film used British-made BMC Mini Coopers, but BMW owned the company by 2003.

You can’t make "The Italian Job" with any other kind of car, however, so BMW was approached by the producers for permission to use it. Not only did they get it, but they were given over 30 cars for use in the film. With a BMW Mini Cooper averaging around $20,000, that’s way less than $1 million for some phenomenal advertising. And BMW sales soared.

Screenshot of the Converse shoes scene in I, Robot
I, Robot Converse Shoes Scene.

Converse Shoes in "I, Robot" (2004): A chilling story of AI running amuck, "I, Robot" was one of the biggest films released in 2004, raking in over $342 million in the U.S. alone. It starred box office powerhouse Will Smith and featured a blatant ad for Converse All-Star sneakers.

From the opening of the box to the close-up of the shoes on his feet and even someone saying “nice shoes,” this is product placement is so obvious that it takes the viewer out of the experience of the movie. But the tie to Will Smith’s character being phobic of anything new is concrete, and that makes it work. It could have been a classic Nike or Adidas shoe, but Converse grabbed the opportunity. 

Screenshot of the Pizza Hut ad scene in Wayne's World
Wayne's World Pizza Hut Scene.

"Wayne's World," "Return of the Killer Tomatoes," and "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold": Product placement was parodied "most excellently" in "Wayne's World." From pizza and sneakers to headache pills and soft drinks, it was a master-stroke that managed to make fun of product placement and get paid for it at the same time.

"Return of the Killer Tomatoes" did a wonderful job parodying product placement as well. That's a very young George Clooney doing the pitching. 

Morgan Spurlock created a whole movie funded by nothing but product placement revenue in 2011, called "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Spurlock did what people told him was nearly impossible, making a movie on money received only from product and brand-name integration in the film. It was a smart way to fund a documentary and to highlight the way product placement works in one fell swoop. 

Product Placement on Television

There's been some blatant product placement in daytime TV shows as well, with game shows like "The Price is Right" relying on it heavily. Interestingly enough, the U.K. version of "The Price is Right" doesn't include any name brands at all product placement is taboo there. Contestants have to guess the prices of things like "this box of washing powder" or "a carton of orange juice" instead.

Soap operas are weaving products into their plot lines, too, and they're not subtle. Top-rated shows like "Mad Men" are doing the same, but in a much smarter way. And video games are getting in on the act.

Product Placement in Social Media

Brands are using social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for product placement as well. YouTubers with millions of followers will happily wear branded clothing or use branded items to spread the word about that product to their fanbases. TV shows and movies will also tap "social influencers" to grab this audience through a different medium than TV and movies. 

Overall, product placement it here to stay. It adds realism to a show or movie when it's done well because we use these products daily. But it can also be detrimental to the suspension of disbelief with films when it's too obvious.