Brands & Product Placement

FADE IN: What came before In many ways this article is a sequel; call it “2” or “The Return” or “Product Placement Redux” or Placementer.” It follows others in examining the product placement phenomenon in film. Some of the available coverage is insightful, most of it is monotonous, and too much of it uses a plot device involving “E.T.” and Reese’s.

Act I, Scene 1: The part about defining what we’re talking about “Product placement, brand integration, whatever you want to call it. It’s still product placement.” That’s Frank Zazza, CEO of product placement valuation company ITVX. Frank’s been around since the “E.T.” and Reese’s thing and in researching product placement, you’ll consistently come across his name. “Now you have an ad agency come in and they can’t charge 1,000 dollars a month for a huge client, so what do they do? They change the name. ‘Oh, we don’t do product placement, we do brand integration.’ ‘Oh, we don’t do brand integration, we do advertainment.’ ‘Oh, we don’t do advertainment, we do whatever-you-call-it.’ What’s the difference between a commercial kitchen and a professional kitchen? The word professional means you’re charging 30 percent more.” To cut through the hype, we’re going to call it product placement.

Act I, Scene 2: Introducing the hero Film is quite possibly the most powerful medium for communication in the world today. One reason for this is its importance as a cultural force. While television is the most pervasive form of electric entertainment, it is not the most popular. It’s easy to find a curmudgeon who believes that television is second only to heroin in terms of being a destructive influence. However, outside of fringe extremist groups, it is nearly impossible to find somebody who will similarly damn the medium of film. Sure, many would rather experience explosive diarrhea than see the latest Ben Affleck vehicle, but that’s just a genre choice, not a condemnation of the whole medium. Simply put, we like television, but we love film. From India to Indiana, going to and seeing and knowing about movies has become so woven into the social fabric that to not participate is to risk being culturally out of touch. Acknowledging this is an excerpt from a call-to-arms speech by industry expert Steven Heyer from Scott Donaton’s recent book on product placement, Madison & Vine: “[There is] the emergence of an experience-based economy, where cultural production is more important than physical production.” Film is also able to reach out and touch a global audience in a way that TV programming is just too provincial to accomplish. “Titanic” was a global phenomenon with screaming fans lining up multiple times. It’s a connection that TV show “Friends,” though broadcast in many nations, just cannot trigger. “Film content is immediately global in nature where [with] television you have to sell the formats and sometimes things don’t translate as well. For clients that are global brands, [film placement] can have much more impact.” That’s Tera Hanks, president of product placement agency Davie-Brown Entertainment. The back story on Hanks is that she’s a bit of a product placement legend (Madison & Vine has a whole chapter on her) and was responsible for MINI’s placement coup in “The Italian Job.”

Act I, Scene 3: The plot All in branding probably know at least one legend about film product placement. There are many: BMW Z3 sales after “James Bond”; Red Stripe beer sales increasing 50 percent after “The Firm”; “Toy Story” increasing Etch-a-Sketch sales by over 4,000 percent and actually putting the Slinky maker back in business. But not every starlet who shows up in Hollywood becomes Julia Roberts, and not every brand that shows up with Brad Pitt becomes Reese’s Pieces. From the Wall Street Journal: “The product placement field itself has become one giant chase scene, complete with screeching collisions and general chaos” (2 September 2004), to the Financial Times: “a rough-and-ready art” (22 June 2004), everyone agrees that the ground is less than firm. But there are a few rules and some advice.

 Act II, Scene 1: High concepts and a paradox The Hands-On Rule: A brand or product used in a film is better than a brand or product advertised in a film. Many product placements are largely benign (not in a good way for the brand owner) because they are actually just advertisements in the background. A Pepsi ad on a subway is something we all see every day and is probably not going to have the same effect as if Spider-man drinks that Pepsi.

The Show Don’t Tell Rule: The features of products or brands that require more than a visual identity will benefit less from product placement. A sports car is a highly visual product and its performance benefits can be seamlessly incorporated in a film sequence (more on seamlessness later). A laundry detergent, on the other hand, requires a vocal endorsement on why it cleans better, and that will probably be a hard fit in a plot. The Lighten Up Rule: Captain Goodguy shouldn’t be your only option. Boba Fett is one of “Star Wars’” most popular characters, and he’s a murderous bounty hunter. “The Italian Job” ’s MINIs were driven by crooks robbing other crooks. “Loveable loser” is a cliché for a reason and a rake’s progress can sometimes be your own.

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