The story of modern product placement begins with a small, scared alien.It was the early 1980s and, having been turned down by M&M’s owner Mars, a director by the name of Steven Spielberg approached Hershey’s to see if they’d consider featuring their brand-new peanut butter cup sweets in a scene for his new movie: ET the Extra Terrestrial.
The result was cult status, both for the film and for Reese’s Pieces, used by the film’s young star to lure ET from the woods. Sales of the sweet reportedly jumped 65% in the two weeks after the film premiered and it remains core to the brand’s identity decades later. Only this year, to mark its first piece of innovation in 40 years, the brand fired an in-store display into space in an attempt to “tap into nostalgia” around the ET connection.
The success of the tie-up proved to sceptical brand owners that integrating their products into films or TV could lead to tangible results, and in the years since product placement has boomed. From Marlboro in Men in Black, to Duracell in The Matrix to James Bond sipping Smirnoff vodka martinis, the past few decades are littered with high-profile examples (see p28). It isn’t slowing down, either. The value of the US product placement market (the biggest in the world) grew 13.7% in 2017 to $8.8bn, according to PQ Media, its eighth consecutive year of double-digit growth. In the UK too – where product placement has only been permitted since 2010 – the past few years alone have seen Co-op and Costa Coffee open up branches on Coronation Street, and Unilever shampoo stocked in the Love Island villa.
At the same time, though, we’re told modern audiences are far savvier and less susceptible when it comes to advertising. That they can spot all those subtle selling tactics a mile off. So how is it that in 2019 product placement still works? What does it take to enjoy the Reese’s Pieces effect? And against a backdrop of ever increasing digital channels, how is product placement evolving?
Product placement is a broad term. But loosely it covers any branded item placed in a non-advertising context, most often film or TV, but also video games, vlogs or even Instagram Stories. Its biggest virtue is that, unlike traditional, straightforward ads, it’s unlikely to be skipped over, fast-forwarded or done away with altogether – as is the case with the shift to ad-free streaming services like Netflix.
Money doesn’t always need to change hands, either. Set directors handed tiny budgets and asked to deck out life-size grocery stores, for example, may ask brands to send in stock for free, in exchange for exposure, a practise known as prop placement. That was in fact the deal struck between Spielberg and Hershey’s (though it was
later followed up with a £1m advertising deal).
More often than not though, at least in high-profile film and TV projects, brands not only pay for the exposure – they pay eye-watering sums. When in 2012’s Skyfall James Bond swapped his martinis for a bottle of Heineken (much to the dismay of 007 purists), it reportedly set the brand back $45m. In Bollywood a single deal can pay for up to 15% of a film’s total budget.
The results can make that a sound investment, though. When Bond swapped to beer so did consumers, with Heineken reporting a 3.7% like-for-like sales uplift in Western Europe after the film aired, with overall volumes up 5.3% in 2012. Macallan Scotch Whisky, featured in the same Bond movie, saw US sales leap36% in the year following its release, according to IRI.
“Done properly, it can work both subliminally and overtly,” says Andy Poole, director at Chapman Poole. “It can remind lapsed audiences, those that may have forgotten about your brand, that you’re still around and with the right products in the right programmes, it can boost credibility and appeal.”
Even when viewers are aware of and actively dislike the concept of product placement. According to experimental psychologist Ian Zimmerman, when we spot a brand in a film we enjoy, our implicit attitudes and emotions toward that film subconsciously transfer on to the brand. What’s more, when a character we like interacts with a brand, we subconsciously identify with that product as a way to vicariously emulate that character’s life. It’s why brands will typically prefer to be placed with a hero rather than a villain. “Even when we view placements sceptically, they can still give us a favourable inclination towards placed brands,” says Zimmerman. “Taken together, this means that we might buy products we’ve seen placed in TV or films even if we view the placements as an attempt at manipulation.