Anatomy of a product placement

Anatomy of a product placement


As consumers skip ads and streaming content balloons, brands are striving to be everywhere at once.

Fridges aren’t movie stars, but they can pose a particular problem when they make an on-screen cameo appearance. When Larry David casually opens the door in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” those shelves must be stocked with food and drink, and each of those items likely has a brand: Perrier sparkling water, Pacific chicken broth, Clover cottage cheese. Maybe even a box of Cheerios on top, like in a recent episode of Euphoria. The refrigerator itself will of course also have a brand. All of this usually has to be negotiated through carefully considered placements that give these products their 15 seconds (or less) of notoriety.

Product placement has long been a feature of Hollywood. To increase brand awareness and association with cool characters, liquor and car companies in particular have for decades paid or participated in some form of quid pro quo to get their products into movies. The first documented example dates back to 1896 when the Lumière brothers, often credited as the first filmmakers, agreed to use soap in their film Washing Day in Switzerland. But the rise of streaming has led to an explosion in product placement. Brands are looking for new ways to draw attention to their products, and productions are looking for creative ways to balance costs. Product placement is now a $23 billion industry, up an estimated 14 percent since 2020.

“People don’t pay attention to advertising,” says Mike Proulx of research consultancy Forrester. In a recent survey conducted by the group, just 5 percent of online adults in the United States said they rarely skip ads; 74 percent stated that this was often the case. “It’s the holy grail for a brand to be integrated into the actual content itself.” But product placement, often vilified for its obviousness, has to walk a fine line between presenting the product and disappearing seamlessly into the background. “It has to be done in a way that doesn’t feel like an ad,” Proulx said.

Agencies like Hollywood Branded connect the brands they represent with writers, producers, set designers and prop masters who in turn could weave them into storylines. (Hollywood Branded even has a warehouse full of discontinued BlackBerry phones, handpicked PassionRoses, minimalist eero Wi-Fi routers, and all sorts of things they can ship to sets at short notice.)

“Products are part of who we are, they just are,” said Stacy Jones, executive director of Hollywood Branded. “Assuming you have a Montblanc pen, you automatically think: This character has a pen that is worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.”

Items can also act as narrative shorthand in scripts. “If you have a whiskey drinker, you know she’s going to be a badass,” said Erin Schmidt, chief product placement officer at Branded Entertainment Network, another agency that helps coordinate product placement. “You don’t have to write another script there because the brand gives you that contextual element.”

The majority of product placement in film and television, Jones said, is on a quid pro quo basis, not payment. A car company could loan a set an expensive car in exchange for appearing on the show, or S’well Water could send a case of bottles to props in return. (With cars, Schmidt said, there’s often a different kind of compromise: A company might agree to give a specific number that can be destroyed in one action scene in exchange for showing it in another scene.) It There are also paid placements, but especially with big streaming companies like Netflix and HBO, it’s more common to fiddle with credit and trade deals to cut production budgets.

Ruby Moshlak, a self-proclaimed “prop master” who manages props on film and television sets, often works on a tight budget to create a realistic fictional world. “There’s nothing like a free $5,000 espresso setup,” she said. She described a tricky dance of finding the right object for the right character, like what car Queen Latifah should drive in The Equalizer. “Jaguar’s crossover SUV was a really good fit for the character,” Moshlak said. “It’s kind of a mother car, but still pretty cool, with a retail value of under $50,000, which is upper mid-range but not that different from the sedan.” Moshlak was able to get it for free in exchange for revealing it.

Which doesn’t mean that product placement always runs smoothly. Obvious product placement can both hurt a storyline and strain credibility. “If James Bond was shown just drinking milk or getting into a Ford Fiesta and not an Aston Martin, viewers would feel like that kind of crossed a line,” said June Deery, professor of media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which studied the commercialization of American media. Also, the restrictions associated with certain contracts can be creatively limiting. “Two years ago I worked on a rom-com with really big actors and it was gross,” Moshlak said. “In every scene there was an agreement about money. There was a kitchen appliance that featured in a third of the movie for over $1 million — literally written into the story.”

The success of product placement as a marketing strategy rests on the interplay between the floating reality of the screen and the free market economy of the off-screen world. Just how powerful this exchange can be was illustrated when a character in “And Just Like That” suffered a heart attack while riding a peloton – causing the real brand’s stock to plummet. On the other hand, breakfast brand Eggo was reinvigorated when it was featured on the show “Stranger Things” as the series’ central plot point. (After a few years of declining sales, there was reportedly a 14 percent surge after the show’s first season aired.)

Certain items can take on almost talismanic significance, like the BlackBerry used by Kevin Spacey’s character in the Netflix series House of Cards. “The BlackBerry was introduced in the first year, and then Samsung wanted to take over, but he was already established as a character with a BlackBerry,” Jones said. “You can’t always switch it that way.” And though Blackberrys were supplanted in popular imagination by iPhones and eventually phased out altogether in 2020, the phone now has a second life in shows like And Just Like That, which have a historical flair convey.

While traditional product placement has been focused primarily on objects, less tangible brands are also looking for placements. Zillow, for example, approached the Branded Entertainment Network about six years ago to find its way into screenplays. “Zillow is really trying to capitalize on life changes — marriage, moving, a new job, things like that,” Schmidt said. “So we just go to the creator community and bring that essence to them, and then they come to us and say, ‘I have this great opportunity where a character is moving to Chicago for a new job, maybe we can bring them to Zillow in there .'” The page ended up in Grace and Frankie, Never Have I Ever, Sweet Magnolias, Promising Young Woman, Book Club, and Clifford the Big Red Dog, among others. others—and the agency experimented with different strategies to incorporate them. Schmidt said verbal mentions inserted into the script worked well for Zillow. “We found really fun ways to verbally integrate it, like, ‘I wrecked his house and it’s only worth X,'” Schmidt said. “To say, ‘I’m going to Zillow in this house,’ became part of the cultural norm.”

Tech companies are experimenting with tools to place products in shows that have already been recorded and AI solutions that could swap one brand of alcohol for another, or a bottle of Pepsi for a bottle of Coke — essentially selling placements like advertising space for different markets. Jones noted that this can be tricky to pull off successfully, as there can be an art of choosing what even belongs on the screen, almost akin to an object casting process.

At an industry conference in May, Amazon announced it was experimenting with a beta version of “virtual product placement,” which the company is testing on shows like Reacher, Jack Ryan, and the Bosch franchise. “It creates the ability to film your series without thinking about all of the things that traditional placements require during production,” said Henrik Bastin, managing director of Fabel Entertainment and executive producer of Bosch: Legacy, at the conference. “Instead, you can sit through the final cut and see where a product could seamlessly and naturally integrate into the storytelling.” A sample still from “Bosch” shows M&M’s staged next to an office coffee machine.

Skeptics of product placement, especially those who resent overtly staged instances of it, might see it as a cynical way of building a fictional world. “I think the larger context is that product placement accustoms viewers to the inevitability of capitalist exchange,” Professor Deery said. “It normalizes the notion that there is a commercial motive behind almost everything we experience in our increasingly mediated and branded experience.”

But, Deery noted, this is “its own kind of realism” in a world where brands reign supreme. On the BBC, for example, and some American television networks, brands are blurred or hidden from the camera – creating a peculiar kind of eerie vision, a world that resembles, but isn’t quite, our own.

“Everything is a brand,” Jones said. “They make roses, almonds. You can do roofs, shingles.” And of course the refrigerator. “Fridges are full of real products and you want that to be realistic,” she added. “Unless it’s full of Tupperware. But Tupperware is also a brand.”

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