Anatomy of product placement


While consumers ignore advertisements and streaming content balloons, brands aim to be everywhere at once.

Refrigerators aren’t movie stars, but they can pose a particular problem when they appear on screen. When Larry David casually opens the door in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” those shelves must be full of food and drink, and each of those items is likely to have a brand: Perrier sparkling water, Pacific chicken broth, cottage cheese Clover. Maybe it’ll even have a box of Cheerios on it, like in a recent episode of “Euphoria.” The refrigerator itself will also have a mark, of course. All of this usually has to be traded through carefully researched placements that give these products their 15 seconds (or less) of fame.

Product placement has long been a hallmark of Hollywood. Seeking to build brand recognition and associate themselves with cool characters, alcohol and car manufacturers, in particular, have for decades paid or hired some sort 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 feature 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 offset costs. Product placement is now a $23 billion industry, up about 14% since 2020.

“People don’t pay attention to ads,” said Mike Proulx of research consultancy Forrester. In a recent survey by the group, just 5% of online adults in the US said they rarely skip ads; 74% said they do it often. “It’s the holy grail for a brand to be integrated into the content itself.” But product placement, often maligned for being obvious, has to walk a thin line between showing off the product and blending seamlessly into the background. “It needs to be executed in a way that doesn’t look like an advertisement,” Proulx said.

Agencies like Hollywood Branded connect the brands they represent with writers, producers, designers and props, who could in turn turn them into scripts. (Hollywood Branded even has a warehouse full of discontinued BlackBerry cellphones, handpicked PassionRoses, minimalist eero Wi-Fi routers, and all sorts of things they can ship anytime.)

“Products are a part of our lives, they just are,” said Stacy Jones, CEO of Hollywood Branded. “Let’s say you have a Montblanc pen, you automatically think that character has a pen that’s worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars.”

Items can also work as a narrative shortcut in scripts. “If you have a wife who drinks whiskey, you know she’s going to be a badass character,” said Erin Schmidt, product placement manager at Branded Entertainment Network, another agency that helps coordinate product placement. . “You don’t need to write more script in there because the brand gives you that contextual element.”

The majority of product placement in film and television, Jones said, is done on a consideration basis rather than in exchange for payment. A car manufacturer can lend an expensive car to a set in exchange for an appearance on the show, or S’well Water can send a crate of bottles to propmasters for review. (With cars, Schmidt said, there’s often another kind of trade-off: A company can agree to give away a number that can be destroyed in one action scene, in exchange for being featured in another scene. ) There are also paid placements, but especially with big streaming companies like Netflix and HBO, it’s more often about finding loan and swap deals to cut production budgets.

Ruby Moshlak, a self-identified “props mistress” who manages props on film and television sets, often works on a tight budget to create a realistic fictional world. “There’s no such thing as a $5,000 espresso setup, free,” she said. She described a tricky dance of finding the right object for the right character, like the car Queen Latifah should be driving in “The Equalizer.” “The Jaguar crossover SUV suited the character really well,” Moshlak said. “It’s kind of a mommy car but still pretty cool, with a retail value of less than $50,000, which is upper middle class but not that different from the sedan.” Moshlak was able to get it for free, in exchange for exposure.

Which is not to say that product placement always goes well. Blatant product placement can both damage a plot and damage credibility. “If James Bond was shown drinking nothing but milk, or riding in a Ford Fiesta and not an Aston Martin, viewers would feel like it would cross some kind of line,” said June Deery, professor Media Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who studied the commercialization of American media. In addition, the constraints associated with specific contracts can limit creativity. “Two years ago I worked on a romantic comedy with really big actors, and it was gross,” Moshlak said. “In every scene, there was a financial deal in place. There was a kitchen appliance that featured in a third of the movie for over a million dollars – literally written into history.

The success of product placement as a marketing strategy relies on the interaction between the reality suspended on screen and the free market economy of the off-screen world. It became apparent just how powerful this exchange can be when a character from “And Just Like That” suffered a heart attack while leading a Peloton – causing real-world brand stock to plummet. On the other hand, the Eggo breakfast brand was reinvigorated when it was featured on the show “Stranger Things” as a key plot point in the series. (After a few years of lagging sales, there was reportedly a 14% spike after the show’s first season aired.)

Some objects can take on an almost talismanic significance, like the BlackBerry that Kevin Spacey’s character used in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” “The BlackBerry was brought in the first year, and then Samsung wanted to take over, but it was already established as a character with a BlackBerry,” Jones said. “You can’t always change like that.” And although BlackBerries were supplanted in the 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,” offering a vintage flair.

While traditional product placement was primarily focused on objects, less tangible brands are also looking for placements. Zillow, for example, approached Branded Entertainment Network about six years ago to work their way into scripts. “Zillow is really looking to capitalize on the life change — 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’ll 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 Zillow in there. “The site 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 — and the agency experimented with different strategies to incorporate it. Schmidt said verbal annotations, inserted into the script, worked well for Zillow. “We found really fun ways to incorporate it verbally, like, ‘I I have Zillow his house and it’s only worth x,” Schmidt said. “Saying ‘I’m going to Zillow this house’ has become a cultural norm.”

Tech companies are experimenting with tools to place products in shows that have already been taped and AI solutions that could swap one brand of alcohol for another, or a bottle of Pepsi for what might have been inside. origin a bottle of Coke – essentially selling placements like space advertisements for different markets. Jones noted that this can be difficult to pull off given that it can be a kind of art to select what belongs on screen in the first place, almost akin to a process of molding objects.

At an industry conference in May, Amazon announced it would be experimenting with a beta version of “virtual product placement,” which the company is testing in shows like “Reacher,” “Jack Ryan,” and the franchise.” Bosch”. “It creates the ability to shoot your series without thinking about all that is required with traditional placements during production,” said Henrik Bastin, general manager of Fabel Entertainment and executive producer of “Bosch: Legacy,” during the conference. . “Instead, you can sit down with the final cut and see where a product could seamlessly and naturally fit into the storytelling.” An exemplary still from “Bosch” shows M&M’s mounted in a scene alongside an office coffee machine.

Skeptics of product placement, especially those annoyed by obviously staged examples, might see it as a cynical way to construct a fictional world. “I think the larger context is that product placement acclimates viewers to the inevitability of capitalist exchange,” said Deery, the professor. “It normalizes the idea that there’s a commercial motive behind almost everything we experience in our increasingly hyped and branded experience.”

But, Deery noted, it’s “its own kind of realism” in a world where brands reign supreme. On the BBC, for example, and some US TV channels, brands are blurred or hidden from the camera, which creates its own kind of weird viewing, a world that comes close to ours but doesn’t quite look like it. .

“Everything is a brand,” Jones said. “You place roses, almonds. You can do roofing, shingles. And, of course, the refrigerator. “Refrigerators are full of real produce, and you want it to be realistic,” she added. “Unless it’s full of Tupperware.” But Tupperware is also a brand.