Advertising and film have always been closely related. As an immersive, impactful visual medium, advertisers were not far behind the first pioneers of cinema in recognizing its potential. Nowadays, commercials can sometimes feel like short movies and, indeed, for those films that indulge in a bit too much product placement — some movies can feel like long commercials.
Product placement is a great way for brands to not just get seen by millions of people, but to benefit from the association with popular cultural touchpoints. Seeing your favorite character alongside a brand could well change your perception of it — in fact, this is something brands are banking on, big time! In 2012’s James Bond blockbuster Skyfall, Heineken paid an estimated $45 million to get a bottle of their beer in 007’s hands!
In this article, we’re going to take a quick tour of the history of brands that got their own starring role in films, with examples from those that pulled it off and those that left audiences groaning.
We’ll also investigate whether this type of advertising actually works and why brands pay so much to feature in Hollywood's biggest blockbusters.
A Short History of Product Placement in Film
No sooner had the first reels of film begun spinning to mesmerized audiences in the late 1800s, that advertisers came knocking — looking to promote their products. Washing day in Switzerland, a short film by the Lumiere Brothers from 1896, features what may be the first instance of product placement in film — with a tactically placed box of Sunlight Soap visible for viewers to see.
Fast forward to 1919’s Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle comedy _The Garage, _where the repeated product placement for Red Crown Gasoline was deemed so gratuitous that film reviewer P.S Harrison criticized it in his review. By modern standards, however, it’s barely noticeable. Indeed, product placement was only going to get bigger and bolder!
As films grew to become the popular medium that they are today, brands were also on their own trajectory of growth — playing a greater role in our day-to-day lives and capitalizing on an expansive network of new marketing channels from print media to radio and then television.
From the 1980s onwards, product placement really became commonplace, but this isn’t simply a case of corporate greed and sellout artists. In a world where brands had already created vital relationships with consumers, filmmakers could quickly access the visual shorthand that major brands had mastered to help tell their stories.
A great example is Steven Spielberg’s E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. The plot demanded that the film’s protagonist, Elliot, lure his alien friend using candy — the producers approached Hershey’s with a request to use Reece’s Pieces and the chocolate brand agreed, committing $1 million to support the promotion of the film — and got exclusive rights to use E.T in their own commercials.
Though an invented brand might have done the trick for this scene, it may have alienated audiences and left them feeling confused. By relying on existing brand awareness and associations of Hershey, the filmmakers were able to create a relatable moment that easily connects and resonates with viewers. In return, Hershey’s got a starring role in one of the 1980’s biggest family blockbusters.
The success of Reece’s Pieces product placement led to a slew of big corporate deals between household brands and Hollywood. According to Snopes:
“Exxon paid $300,000 for its name to appear in Days of Thunder, Pampers paid $50,000 to be featured in Three Men and a Baby, and Cuervo Gold spent $150,000 for placement in Tequila Sunrise.”
But product placement isn’t just reserved for blockbusters. Even indie films have got in on the action. The 2008 British comedy Somers Town, which won the top prize that year at the Edinburgh film festival, was financed entirely by Eurostar. The whole project was actually conceptualized by ad agency Mother, who approached director Shane Meadows to create a “legacy project” focused on the area of London where the Channel Tunnel had recently opened its new rail terminal.
According to the film’s producer, Barnaby Spurrier, the “contract said that if Shane was asked to put in a smiling train driver, or had any other interference, he would take his name off the project” — though the film does feature a happy train trip to Paris in its final scenes.
Nowadays, product placement is bigger than ever thanks to on-demand streaming services sending a wrecking ball through the effectiveness of traditional commercial breaks.
As a result, audiences are noticing product placement more, too — as brands vie to steal the scene across reality TV, critically acclaimed series, and summer blockbusters.
Increasingly, consumers appreciate honesty — they like to know when they’re being advertised to and, with online influencers now having to disclose when their content is sponsored, it begs the question of why films are able to get away with it?
Well, the answer is they’re not. At least not everywhere anyway. In the UK, product placement on TV is limited by some of the strongest laws in the world, and even the limited amount that has been permitted since 2011 has to be clearly signposted — TV shows that feature product placement must display this logo.
While product placement can often induce groans from cynical audiences, they’re not all alike. In fact, there are three main types that brands can reach for when looking to get in on the action.
The Three Main Types Of Product Placement In Films
1. Screen Placement
This is when a brand features in the foreground or background of a shot but isn’t mentioned by name. It could be a recognizable logo on the back of a laptop, something that a character is eating, or a popular restaurant chain just in focus behind the action.
Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction features on-screen cameos from a whopping 55 separate brands, and many of them aren’t so subtle.
2. Script Placement
When a character mentions a particular brand by name, even if it’s interchangeable or unrelated to the plot or characters of the film, then it counts as script placement. A great example can be found in Back To The Future Part II when Marty McFly orders a Pepsi in the future.
3. Plot Placement
Plot placement is where brands really become entwined in the fictional world of films to the extent that they are an unchangeable part of the story or the characters that feature within it.
This brings us back to James Bond, a character that has relied on the power of brands for years. His creators have piggybacked off the strong associations of major brands to create the iconic and aspirational character recognized by millions across the globe.
Martini and Aston Martin are two brands that seem inseparable from 007’s character to the point that Heineken’s $45 million deal to feature in the latest films actually caused a backlash from fans, who accused the production studios of “excessive commercialization”.
But all of this actually begs the question — does product placement work?
How Effective is Product Placement?
With the decline of traditional commercial breaks, it makes sense that brands are now eager to be “the entertainment, not the disruption” — at least this is how product placement specialists Branded Entertainment Network puts it.
As with any campaign, product placements aren’t guaranteed to work and still require advertisers to identify the right audiences and the best way to show off their brand. But when they’re done right, they have the power to really impact audience awareness, and, vitally, how audiences perceive a brand.
Branded Entertainment Network reported in a 2018 study that the practice is 11% more effective at driving purchases than traditional 30-second ad breaks, and 10% more effective at supporting brand affinity.
In fact, this is the very agency that got that infamous bottle of Heineken in James Bond’s hand — as well as around 1,500 other integrations across films and TV shows such as The Hangover, Narcos, Ray Donovan, Austin Powers, and The Sopranos — giving the brand an estimated 5 billion global impressions.
But product placement also builds strong brand associations. It’s no accident that Tony Stark drives an Audi, or that Riverdale’s protagonist Archie Andrews can be seen eating from a pristinely uncrinckled bag of Doritos. Seeing heroes and main characters associated with brands helps drive positive brand associations. It’s for this exact reason that Apple actually doesn’t let the bad guys in films use their phones or computers!
Darryl Collis, director of product placement agency, Seesaw Media, explains that:
“all brands have stipulations for how they want to be used and seen on screen…It is common for some brands not to want to be associated with a bad guy, or for an alcohol or car brand not to want to be linked with characters being drunk or involving crashes.”
A good product placement campaign allows brands to be part of wider cultural moments and gives them an opportunity to gain positive associations when seen alongside aspirational stars. As with Reece’s Pieces, which had only launched two years prior to its starring role in _E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, _it can really put a brand on the map.
But just as with any other branding campaign, it’s vital that marketers and brand managers have a viable way of seeing how effective their efforts are in shifting consumer perception of their brand. By using brand tracking software, brands can do exactly this — not just to track whether awareness has increased but whether placing your product in the hero’s hands has changed how they feel about your brand.