The Delicate Art of Product Placement Advertising

How brands grab you by your subconscious

Converse in I, Robot
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You may have heard the term "product placement" used in the context of movies and television. In this modern environment of commercial-skipping and ad blindness, product placement is quickly becoming a huge way for brands to reach their target audience in more "subtle" ways. But what exactly is product placement, how does it work, and what impact will it have on the future of advertising?

Product Placement Definition

In laymen's terms, product placement is the promotion of branded goods and services within the context of a show or movie (or even personal videos) rather than as an explicit advertisement. When you see a product or service appear in a TV show, or in a motion picture, the company behind it has usually (but not always) paid for their brand to appear on screen or on the radio.

Also known as embedded marketing or advertising, the practice has been around for decades, but marketers have 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 may barely notice that every single car used in the movie or show was from only one automaker. Or that everyone in a TV show drinks the same brand of soda.

Costs of Product Placement

Man of Steel was a huge hit, spawning Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and rebooting the whole Justice League franchise. But it also did something else. It 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 a healthy sum of money to have their brands featured in the Superman mega-hit. They included Warby Parker, which offered Clark Kent-inspired glasses; Gillette, which created a video series on Superman shaving; plus Walmart, Hershey's Twizzler, Chrysler, Sears Roebuck & Co., Army National Guard, Kellogg Co., Nokia, Hardee's, and Carl's Jr. Did you notice some of them in the movie? You almost certainly saw Superman's face everywhere when the movie was released.

Perhaps only Star Wars: The Force Awakens had a more saturated marketing campaign. 

Before both of those movies, Ford paid around $14 million to have James Bond drive the Ford Mondeo in Casino Royale. It was on screen for barely three minutes, which equates to over $78,000 per second! That's more than the average US family makes in one year. Ford and also furnished the cars for the scene.

Despite all these numbers, there are no specific costs associated with product placement; this is usually something that is negotiated between the show and the brand, and it is becoming more expensive every year. 

Product Placement in the Movies

Some of the most infamous product placement scenes in movies include:

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)
You know, the title really should be “M&Ms in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” because that’s what Steven Spielberg wanted. Of course, if Mr. Spielberg asked any company for their product to be in one of his movies these days, they would bite his hand off. But back in 1982, product placement was not the giant it is today. Hershey, the owner of M&Ms, placed demands on the studio, including seeing a final script before filming even began. The studio said no, and Reese’s Pieces were offered the deal instead…for zero dollars.

They did spend around $1 million to promote the movie though, which is around $2.5 million today. Considering they saw a 65% increase in sales, that was quite the bargain.

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 (yes…that Benny Hill), the 2003 remake still had a lot going for it. The original used the British-made BMC Mini Coopers, but by 2003, BMW owned the company. You can’t make The Italian Job with any other kind of car, though, and BMW was approached by the producers for permission. 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. Smart move on their part. 

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

Converse Shoes in I, Robot (2004)
A chilling story of A.I. running amuck, I, Robot was one of the biggest films released that year, raking in over $342 million in the U.S. alone. It stars box office powerhouse Will Smith, and 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 perhaps so obvious that it takes the viewer out of the experience of the movie. However, the tie to Will Smith’s character being phobic of anything new is concrete and 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.

Product placement was also parodied "most excellently" in Wayne's World. From pizza and sneakers to headache pills and soda, it was a master-stroke that managed to make fun of product placement and also get paid for it at the same time. And for fans of cult movies, Return of the Killer Tomatoes did a wonderful job of parodying product placement. That's a very young George Clooney doing the pitching. 

In 2011, Morgan Spurlock created a whole movie funded by nothing but product placement revenue. Called The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock did what people told him was near impossible: he made the whole movie on money received ONLY for product and brand-name integration in the film. It was a smart way to fund a documentary, and highlight the way product placement works, in one fell swoop. 

Product Placement in Television

There has also been some blatant product placement in daytime television shows, with game shows like The Price is Right relying on heavy product placement. (Interestingly enough, the UK version of The Price is Right does not have name brands featured. Advertising laws are much more strict there, and product placement like that is very taboo. Instead, contestants have to guess the prices of things like "this box of washing powder" or "a carton of orange juice.")

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

Product Placement in Social Media

As the advertising landscape has shifted dramatically to social platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, brands are using these channels for product placement opportunities. For example, YouTubers with millions of followers will happily wear branded clothing, or use branded items, to spread the word about that product to their fanbase. TV shows and movies will also tap "social influencers" to grab this new audience through a much different medium than TV and movies. 

Overall, product placement it here to stay. If done well, it adds realism to a show or movie, because we all use these products in our daily lives. Covering brand names with duct tape doesn't help. But when it's too obvious, it is also detrimental to the suspension of disbelief with films.