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Alcohol and Product Placement: Can Brands be Trusted to Self-Regulate?

Posted by Abe Sauer on June 5, 2013 11:37 AM

Alcohol product placement is in the spotlight (again) thanks to a new study by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center that found alcohol brand placement "was found increasingly in movies rated for youth as young as 13 years." This increase, the study says, is "despite the industry's intent to avoid marketing to underage persons."

The study took as its material 1,400 box-office hits released in the United States between 1996 and 2009. The study further looked at the before and after effect of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) on tobacco—which restricted tobacco product placement—and compared it to results from the self-regulated alcohol product placement business.

Ultimately, the study found, in summary:

"Altogether, the 1400 movies contained 500 tobacco and 2,433 alcohol brand appearances. After implementation of the MSA, tobacco brand appearances dropped exponentially by 7.0 percent (95 percent CI, 5.4%-8.7%) each year, then held at a level of 22 per year after 2006. The MSA also heralded a drop in tobacco screen time for youth- and adult-rated movies (42.3 percent [95 percent CI, 24.1 percent-60.2 percent] and 85.4 percent [56.1 percent-100.0 percent], respectively). In contrast, there was little change in alcohol brand appearances or alcohol screen time overall. In addition, alcohol brand appearances in youth-rated movies trended upward during the period from 80 to 145 per year, an increase of 5.2 (95 percent CI, 2.4-7.9) appearances per year."

The study's findings are not altogether surprising to brandchannel, which has tracked all product placement and brand appearances in over 400 top box office hits since 2001. For example, in the 408 films that won weekend box office battles since 2001, Budweiser is the 6th most occurring brand. The beer has appeared more often in these box office hits than Pepsi, Cadillac, McDonald's or even Sony. The next closest alcohol brand is Heineken, which has appeared in fewer than a third as many top films. Over the same period, Miller and Corona have respectively enjoyed fewer than a quarter as many placements. When it comes to product placement, Budweiser is to alcohol what Apple is to computers.

By our tracking, the alcohol brands that have appeared most in top films over the last 12 years are, in order: Budweiser (83 appearances since 2001); Heineken (26); Miller (19); Corona (18); and Jack Daniels (16). Moët & Chandon (15); Dos Equis (13); Johnnie Walker (11); Michelob (10); Grey Goose (10); and Bacardi (9); Maker's Mark (9) round out the top ten. (It's noteworthy that if Marlboro were booze, it would be the eighth most placed, with 12 appearances.)

The study's finding of 2,433 alcohol brand appearances in 1,400 movies suggests the research counted each individual appearance in a film whereas brandchannel only counts each brand once per film regardless of total scenes. (For example, the study would count once each the 674,356 appearances of Budweiser in Adam Sandler's film That's My Boy while brandchannel would only note its presence.)

Nonetheless, the study's results raise hard to answer questions about how effective "self regulation" is when it comes to alcohol product placement.

"Alcohol is indeed a delicate subject," says Ruben Igielko-Herrlich, co-founder of Propaganda GEM, a placement agency that in the past was responsible for high-profile projects for brands including Audi and BMW. Igielko-Herrlich tells brandchannel he is surprised that as many PG-13 films as the study implies would be pursued by alcohol brands.

Igielko-Herrlich does not personally handle alcohol clients, but he says the criteria for alcohol placements in the US are strict, including that at least 70 percent of the audience must be above the legal drinking age (ideally over 25); that nobody less than 25 years of age can interact, or be directly associated, with the product; and that only responsible drinking can be promoted, "so no binging, drunkenness, dangerous behavior, recklessness, etc."

"Typically most film partnerships that are of interest to [alcohol] brands are those targeting a 25 to 54 demo," Stacy Jones, Founder and CEO of Hollywood Branded, echoing Igielko-Herrlich's remarks, told brandchannel. In addition to helping brands like BlackBerry, Jones has worked with brands including Jack Daniels, Canadian Club, Tres Generaciones, Jagermeister, Southern Comfort, Don Eduardo, Bartles & Jaymes, Boone’s Farm and a long list of other spirits makers. Jones adds that her agency has declined work on films or TV shows with a greater than one-in-five chance of appealing to an audience younger than 25. From her experience, Jones says R-rated films are also just better matches for alcohol brands, as, "You will rarely if ever see a film promotional marketing partnership with a beer or spirit brand with a rating under R."

"The actions of the brand placement companies are not in line with their stated intentions," says James Sargent, Professor of Pediatrics at the Dartmouth Medical School and Co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program. Sargent refutes claims that alcohol brands are trying to avoid appealing to teenagers, asking, simply, if that's the truth, then, "Why are alcohol brands increasingly showing up in PG-13 movies?"

"If these companies really cared about not marketing to teens," Sargent says plainly, "they would restrict alcohol brand placement to R-rated movies."

But both Igielko-Herrlich and Jones argue that product placement is just not that simple. The practice remains uncodified, with some productions relying on agencies, some brands working directly with filmmakers, and some prop masters just placing brands in scenes with no warning. "I am not certain that alcohol companies are directly responsible for the increase of brand visibility in PG-13 films," says Propaganda GEM's Ruben Igielko-Herrlich.

"Productions sometimes just don’t follow the guidelines and rules set by the alcohol brand for onscreen usage," explains Jones, adding that it's difficult to know who to hold responsible sometimes. "Keep in mind that production companies need alcohol to set scenes with a basis of reality," she adds, noting that producers would rather not use "dummy" cans and bottles labeled "beer." In fact, Hollywood has known this since 1999, when a study by Denise DeLorme and Leonard Reid ("Moviegoers' Experiences and Interpretations of Brands in Films Revisited") found that a majority of viewers found generic brands distracting.

One case that would argue in favor of this assessment is last year's drama Flight. While the film was rated R, it was blasted by Budweiser and other spirit makers after brand names appeared onscreen in very unflattering ways. Further, Jones notes that in numerous cases, DISCUS (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States), the spirits industry's national trade association, has taken its members to task when it feels advertising has overstepped boundaries.

Regardless, those behind the study say the system as it stands is broken.

"If we learned anything from the trends in tobacco placement, it is that self-regulation by the industry promoting their brands has little to no impact on actual brand placement because the rewards for such a marketing strategy are great," says Elaina Bergamini, the author of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Norris Cotton Cancer Center study. "Regulatory 'teeth' have the only demonstrable impact on the placement of brands in movies."

It must be said that analyzing the influence of film is a tricky business. Is the Budweiser appearance in Ted on par with the mostly background placements in Iron Man 3? Do the alcohol-fueled plots of movies like The Hangover, 21 Jump Street and 21 and Over do more to promote drinking even though they lack specific brand appearances? That is to say, is it more important how alcohol and smoking are portrayed in films than the brands themselves?

"The answer to that is not necessarily within the purview of this publication and while our group hasn't yet looked at the relationship between what we call 'character valence' and alcohol use," says Bergamini. But the center has done the study for smoking. Bergamini points to "Movie Character Smoking and Adolescent Smoking: Who Matters More, Good Guys or Bad Guys?" by Susanne Tanski et al. "In this study," she says, "they found that the presentation of the use—good or bad—was not relevant to its impact on children initiating smoking."

A single anecdote to be sure, but examples from 2013 so far lend a bit of credence to arguments from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center. Three of the five highest grossing films of 2013—Iron Man 3, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Fast and Furious 6—all feature beer logos and all are also rated PG-13. Iron Man 3 boasts numerous background placements for Bud Light and obscured but identifiable Bud bowtie logos on cans could be dismissed as an act by the producers. Fast and Furious 6 is a little more democratic, giving screen time to lots of Corona but also Dorada. In both cases, an argument could be made that producers added them independently.

But Star Trek: Into Darkness' Budweiser can—the film's lone noticeable product placement—was accompanied by an offscreen tie-in campaign that included Budweiser sweepstakes and an outdoor billboard campaign ("Great times are waiting in the 23rd century"). And if that wasn't a big enough tie-in, parts of Star Trek: Into Darkness were shot inside a 1.7 million square-foot Anheuser-Busch brewery.

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