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.
The Coolness Rule: Because identifying with a film is personal and therefore highly selfish, basic “needs” commodities such as drain cleaners will benefit less than “lifestyle” products such as sunglasses. I want to dress, drink and drive like Bond, not have clean bathroom pipes like Bond. That said…
The Brandsploitation Rule: A logo’s got to show. The audience has to identify the brand. You may love the skirt Nicole Kidman is wearing but if you don’t know it’s Gucci then it doesn’t matter. The Financial Times reported that the Ray-Ban sunglasses worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator 3” had a very successful screen exposure time of four minutes and a product placement value of zero because “they bore no discernable brand” (22 June 2004). This doesn’t mean that a few motivated fans didn’t search them out, but it does make success harder by putting the burden on the consumer.
The Location Rule: “Product” is wide-ranging. Think high concept. Some of the products that best benefit from film placement are geographic. Every movie has to take place somewhere, and as long as it’s not outer space, why shouldn’t it be Seoul or Johannesburg? Think “Notting Hill” or “Braveheart.” Nearly every young American I talked to who saw last year’s “Lost in Translation” now wants to go to Tokyo.
“Placement” is also wide-ranging. Some of the best “places” for products aren’t made in Hollywood. Bollywood makes hundreds of big films a year with enormous, increasingly prosperous audiences. The hit Indian film “Kaho Na Pyar Hai” is reportedly responsible for almost doubling Indian tourism to New Zealand. And Scotland has benefited from Indian tourists’ desire to see film locations, such as the highlands used in “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai.” The British Tourism Authority even promotes travel by distributing UK film location maps in India and the Middle East.
“New York City plays a starring role in hundreds of films each year,” says Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting for New York City. “When filmmakers capture the essence of the city on camera, their films become powerful advertisements for New York City as both a tourist destination and an international capital of film production.” Oliver’s office offers free filming permits, police assistance and location advice among other services to encourage the placement of New York’s product.
The Budget Indie Rule: Product placement is not all pay for play. ITVX’s Zazza: “Approximately 97 percent of all the product placement you’ve seen in the past was done by product placement agencies with their relationships, not with ad agencies.” And though this number is falling, the majority of products still end up in films without paying cash. Instead they provide the crew with loads of product in exchange for placement, or they supply products free of charge to the producers.
BMW has done this twice with enormous, legendary success, once with its Z3 model in “James Bond” and again with the MINI in “The Italian Job” (some say the latter’s placement stole the show). Also, much has been made of the fact that Clos Du Val wine has somehow made 100 film (and TV) appearances simply by sending directors free cases. Whether or not these placements directly boost sales is hard to determine, but the winery has reported 50 percent higher sales over last year.
While less expensive, this method does run the risk of having no agreement in place to assure beneficial placement. Similarly there’s no guarantee your brand won’t end up on the cutting room floor. As product placement becomes more standardized, any really beneficial placements will probably require cash payments.
Act II, Scene 2: The seamless romantic interlude between product and content
“General chaos” notwithstanding, one of only two things everyone seems to agree on is the key factor of good placement: seamlessness. A brand or product must fit naturally in a scene to be successful and not break an audience’s focus. Zazza is especially big on seamlessness: “[Seamlessness] is the key to the future of product placement. Being like a chef and knowing how to do the right mixtures is more important than actually just doing product placement. If it is done organically and seamlessly, it will match [the viewer’s] real world.”
Hanks defines seamlessness as “when the heart and soul of a brand is totally aligned with the heart and soul of content.”
But what if a placement fails to do this? Simon Williams, CEO of brand agency Sterling Group, recently told U.S. Banker magazine that “ham-handed embedding trivializes a brand and erodes trust” (2 August 2004). This means James Bond eating at McDonald’s is probably going to register wrong with an audience. It also leads us to the two final rules and the product placement paradox.
The Starmaking Role Rule: Comparatively speaking, smaller and lesser known brands have a chance of benefiting most from good product placement. For example, if Tom Cruise had chugged Budweiser onscreen in “The Firm” Bud sales probably wouldn’t have increased that dramatically, but Cruise drank the smaller brand Red Stripe and…
The A-Lister Rule: Smaller and lesser known brands have a slimmer chance of being seamlessly placed because audiences don’t know them. This is in part because filmmakers often use brands as character development shorthand. (Good) filmmakers fear exposition and will take any shortcut they can to avoid explaining a character to the audience. Example: If Captain Goodguy is shown drinking Budweiser while Dr. Claw sips Dom Perignon, we know that Goodguy is humble and Dr. Claw is conceited. But if Goodguy drinks a small, unknown brand it doesn’t serve to develop the character to anyone but the few audience members that recognize the brand.
This brings us to the product placement paradox.
Act II, Scene 3: The paradox
The more recognized a brand is within its product category, the more likely it will be that the brand will get seamlessly placed, and thus, the more likely it will become more recognized within its product category.
Example: In the recent “Exorcist” prequel we are told that the hero is a great Oxford scholar, and that’s it. What the writer has done here is use “Oxford” instead of explaining numerous other academic qualifications. If we were told that he was a great Tufts scholar, the same effect wouldn’t be achieved. More than just establishing the hero’s credentials, this placement reinforces our idea that Oxford is a great school even though almost none of us know anything about its religious studies programs.
Think about it in terms of wealth and success. The wealthy get better educations so they go to better secondary schools, get higher paying jobs, get more wealth, and then start it all over with their children. All of this isn’t to say that the poor can’t become wealthy or that small brands can’t be successfully (seamlessly) placed; it just means that it is more of a challenge.
Act III, Scene 1: ROI plot twist
To understand the return on investment (ROI) of product placement one must first understand the results oriented integration (also ROI) of product placement.
Results oriented integration is the art of determining actual monetary values for placements. It is an art, not a science. The subjective factors involved in ascertaining a dollar value are many—background, foreground, verbal, hands-on, presence and clarity are just a start.
Davie-Brown’s Hanks explains: “Counting eyeballs is not enough, because product placement is so subjective. It is taking a look at the context of how a product is used to determine the impact on whether a consumer noticed it, whether it changed their perception of the brand, whether it influenced their decision on whether or not they’d want to purchase the brand. Those questions haven’t been asked before."
Zazza says the biggest product placement mistake is “when the producer, or whoever is offering you the deal, asks for all the money up front. Because if you do that without paying on results, you’re not going to get exactly what was said that you were going to get.” Or in sum, he says, “everyone’s happy when you’re paying based on results.” To this end Zazza’s ITVX has devised a fascinating and complex system to calculate the actual value of a brand’s individual placement. On the ITVX site clients can watch their placements in a program that breaks a host of subjective factors down for each fraction of a second. There are lists and identifiers and determinants and details and particulars and blinking lights; there may even have been some whirring. To the dilettante, it’s as overwhelming as it is impressive but it does give a dollar amount in the end.
Unfortunately, after seamlessness, the second of the only two things everyone agrees on is that nobody can agree on a single paradigm or model for ROI or the other ROI.
“The absence of standards—in measurement, pricing, even definitions—will be the highest hurdle to marketers’ acceptance of branded entertainment as a legitimate marketing tool,” writes Donaton in Madison & Vine. Of the already existing services that try to calculate ROI, Donaton adds: “More complex measurements will be needed, and marketers will also need legitimate benchmarks and standards…. Without [a standard], branded entertainment will continue to be treated more as a space in which to experiment.”
With several organizations doing studies and fine-tuning methodologies that may become standards for the industry, Hanks says, “I think this next year is a really critical year.” Adding, “Oh-five is really the year that it will all come together.”
Epilogue: The part with this article’s product placement
Brandchannel believes that there is something fascinating to be learned by tracking the most watched films of the year and documenting all of the brands that appear in them. From January 2003 to the present, we have attentively watched every week’s Number One film (as determined by US box office) and recorded every brand appearance: good, bad and ugly.
Brandcameo is brandchannel’s new section listing these findings. Each week we will post the Number One film with all of the brands it featured. Commentary will accompany each update estimating viewer perception and highlighting the more prominent placements.
Brandcameo’s running scorecard will track each brand’s total appearances as well as each film it appeared in. The archive will cross-reference all of this data alphabetically, by year and number of appearances in all Number One films going back through 2003. At the end of the year, brandchannel will present several awards and publish a white paper on our findings.
Kiss kiss. Bang bang. The end.