The Delicate Art of Product Placement Advertising

How Brands Grab You by the Subconscious

Texaco
Texaco. Getty Images

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:

  • The Texaco oil change service in Back To The Future 2
  • The BMW ad in the 1995 movie Goldeneye
  • Reese's Pieces were everywhere in E.T. (M&Ms turned it down)
  • The GM vehicles, Beats Pill, and Bud Light bottles in Transformers Movies.
  • Converse and Audi in I, Robot
  • Xbox, Puma, Calvin Klein and Speedo in The Island

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.