Arguing Pop Culture: Product Placement Is Not Shameless Marketing, It’s A Subtle Art

Written by Nicholas Bellomo for English 101: Writing & Research at Westchester Community College.

Advertisements are everywhere in society, whether on television, radio, in magazines, on billboards, in newspapers, or online, and people often get tired of hearing and seeing them. However, product placement does something a little different in a more furtive way that perhaps is less imposing on people. Product placement is a good idea for companies, since the products aren’t being forced down someone’s throat. Characters in a film or television show are using the product, which causes viewers to be curious about the product. If the person really likes the show, movie, or character, then they might want that same product that is being used and seek out more information about the product. Ultimately, even though there are critics who say that because of the furtive manner products are displayed, product placement is shameless marketing, but product placement is actually much better than viewing regular advertisements. Product placement is better than viewing regular advertisements because products are shown in a more subtle way that is less obvious than watching a 30 second commercial.

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Product placement has been around since the late 1800’s, but the first main product placement in a film was in 1927 for the silent movie, Wings. It featured two World War I fighter pilots in a love triangle with a woman and the product placement was of a Hershey’s chocolate bar featured prominently midway through the movie. Another film which was one of the first to notably feature product placement, was E.T. with Reese’s Pieces. Product placement is in almost every television show and movie nowadays and people have just gotten used to this custom. Yes, product placement could seem sneaky but that is better than having the product shoved in front of a person’s face in an advertisement. Branded entertainment or product placement marketing is when companies pay producers of movies, television shows, web videos, video games to feature their products in the entertainment.

There are many popular examples of shows and movies in the past ten years that have used product placement, some of the most prominent featured vehicles and other transportation-related products. The General Motors brand, Pontiac, was in The Oprah Winfrey Show, in 2004 when Oprah surprised viewers when she gave every audience member a Pontiac G-6. She did this in order to start the show’s 13th season and Pontiac donated the vehicles while also paying the sales tax (“Top 10” 1). In 2007, GM played a large role in the film Transformers by having their cars played as the hero “Autobots”. According to GM’s associate director of branded entertainment, Dino Bernacchi, “You’re going to see these cars as the heroes. You’re not going to see the other actors. These cars are the stars, literally, in the movie” (Householder 1). The General Motors brands of Chevrolet, Pontiac, Hummer and GMC were essentially stars in the blockbuster by having models from them being used as the Transformer robots. The movie grossed more than $700 million worldwide and spawned three sequels. GM said that they didn’t pay for the product integration, but they did provide director Michael Bay with two custom yellow and black Camaros played by a fan favorite robot, Bumblebee. General Motors even came out with a special edition Chevrolet Camaro with Transformers badges all over it which would appeal to the 18-34 demographic of young men. GM probably knew when people saw the movie and see the yellow and black Camaro, named Bumblebee, many would be interested in buying something similar. General Motors spent millions to promote and market Transformers tie-ins but never gave an official number.

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The characters in the movie mention the word “Camaro” dozens of times and there are close-ups of the Chevrolet, Pontiac, Hummer and GMC logos on the cars many times (Householder 1). There is a scene in Transformers, when at first Bumblebee has the shape of a beat-up looking 1970s-era Camaro, prompting Fox’s character to ask: “Why if he’s such a super advanced robot does he turn into this piece of crap Camaro?” Then a short time later, a new Camaro is seen driving on the road in the opposite direction when Bumblebee copies that car and upgrades to that new model Camaro.

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Harley-Davidson is another prominent vehicle product placement; Harley-Davidson was featured in the television show, Sons of Anarchy which started in 2008. Harley-Davidson was first approached about sponsoring the first episode of the FX series about outlaw bikers, but Marks-Hans Richer, Harley’s CMO, had a better idea. He thought instead of actual advertising with ads, the characters in the show should instead all ride Harleys (“Top 10” 1).

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American Airlines was featured in the airplane movie, Up in the Air, in 2009. George Clooney travels the country firing people in the movie. He has a goal to fly 10 million miles on American Airlines and get his name emblazoned on a plane. The airline didn’t pay for placement, but it did provide locations and branding which is similar to what General Motors did with Transformers (“Top 10” 1). The benefits to product placement are that companies can pay shows or films to have their products without having to spend millions on advertisements people may not pay attention to. In a world of insta-videos, most are tired of ad videos and commercials taking up so much of their valuable time, but product placement is more subtle, spurring different reactions more akin to: “The yellow and black Camaro in Transformers was really awesome! I wonder where I can get one?”  as opposed to using commercial time to step away from the television or computer screen for a bathroom break.

There are other brands and products that have or had close relationships with television shows or movies. In these shows or movies products are also actually sometimes being used on live television. AT&T, has had a relationship with American Idol, since it started in 2002 and continues to. According to Mitch Kanner, founder of Two Degrees Ventures, “The longstanding partnership ‘taught America how to text,’” (“Top 10” 1). The show, The Office, in 2006 had huge product placement for Staples. In an episode from that year, one of the characters, Kevin, went crazy with a Staples MailMate shredder. He also eventually started shredding lettuce into a salad during the episode. Staples after the show produced a “Dunder Mifflin” line of paper. Shredding lettuce with a paper shredder in The Office is supposed to make people laugh while also showing viewers, the paper shredder works so well it even can shred lettuce (“Top 10” 1). Product placement here is beneficial because products are actually being used. AT&T has a relationship with American Idol and people that watch might think that AT&T must be a great cell phone carrier if one of America’s most watched shows is endorsed by them. Shredding lettuce isn’t something that people should be doing with a paper shredder but the product is still being shown how effective it is without having to see an advertisement.

The restaurant chain Subway, was featured on two NBC shows: Chuck and Community, in 2009 and 2014 respectively. In both cases of these shows, grateful fans saw the brand’s involvement (and money) as saving the shows from cancellation.

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The shows were saved from cancellation because Subway paid the shows to have the characters eat Subway sandwiches. The shows received enough money to continue producing the show for some time longer. Apple’s iPad, were featured in Modern Family, in 2010. Apple and the producers of the show said that no money changed hands for the episode. The episode saw the geeky dad, Phil obsess over getting an iPad as soon as it hit stores (“Top 10” 1). The impact of having products like vehicles, shredders, restaurant chains, etc. is that people will associate these products and brands to these shows and films and people will end up getting the products by those brands. People watching these films and shows will relate those products to what they watched. Sometimes the products that are advertised in these films and shows will be bought by the viewers. For example, Sons of Anarchy, a show with motorcycles will have people that buy motorcycles watch the show or Modern Family, a family comedy with an iPad will have viewers that will buy an iPad.

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Walmart and the brand, Procter & Gamble, were featured in the TV movies, Secrets of the Mountain and The Jensen Project, both in 2010. These made-for-TV movies, aired on NBC, and were meant to draw consumers to buy P&G products at Walmart. The movies drew pretty good audiences for their time slots and got people interested in buying the products at Walmart. Wheat Thins were featured in The Colbert Report, in 2012. The host, Stephen Colbert made fun of the show’s sponsor, Wheat Thins by reading its high-minded brand brief to viewers. Kraft despite having its product made fun of, decided to consider the whole incident a net plus instead of a negative (“Top 10” 1). Kraft decided to consider the incident a plus because they were getting advertising for their Wheat Thins. Wheat Thins were being made fun of, but it was instant advertising for the product.

Companies are trying to figure out other ways to get people interested in their products. Companies discovered that people are no longer paying attention to the advertising. Product placement was incorporated into these companies marketing strategies. They reinvented their marketing strategies and placed the products in movies and TV shows to better capture consumer’s attention (Vass 1). Brands offer monetary compensation for many television shows and movies and can help them get more revenue. Product placement is good for the TV shows and movies because it gives them another way to make money. Since marketers started using these brand entertainment strategies almost every brand out there puts a product in a television show or movie. Many popular movies have done this such as the James Bond films that feature Omega watches, Mission Impossible with Apple Mac computers and Men in Black with Ray-Ban sunglasses (Vass 1).

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With the success of advertising in television shows and movies marketers have now started putting products in video games, web videos and even music videos. Product placement has many advantages for the actors, producers, and manufacturers. For the marketers it got companies associated with famous movie stars. For producers and actors and allow them to be associated with brands in various film festivals while also giving them some revenue for the endorsing. Musicians benefit from the branded entertainment and music videos and lyrics by being able to offset the cost of producing the video by earning the revenue from the company. The marketers are able to use the Internet with YouTube to put products in songs found there by artists. People will remember the products on YouTube and music videos when they perform at concerts. Product placement and branded entertainment strategies seem to be working because many people associate products with actors and musicians. For the strategy to work products must be featured throughout while making subtle appearances in movies, television shows, web videos or video games (Vass 1).

The studios benefit with product placement by getting revenue from a brand or product. With the increasing costs that studios face they are eager to associate with the product or brand. There are sometimes direct payments for the product placement but often the payment for the placement is often the donation or loaning of products to the movie set for television set. The prop master for a movie or television show will contact marketing agencies to get associated with a company who is interested in donating goods often expensive ones like vehicles or computers. A location designer on the set hopes to find a company that donates a set location like if the script calls for seen in a fast food restaurant the designer will try to get a McDonald’s or Taco Bell to rent out their restaurant for filming. Besides possibly benefiting financially the use of real products can strengthen the reality of the film or TV show. While the films with product placement are seen as sacrificing art for ads the use of products that people are familiar with can increase the credibility and power of the film as something people can identify with. When brands that are cultural icons are used like Coca Cola or Nike, the viewers have an idea of the type of person using that product (“The Industry” 1). Even artists like Lady Gaga have used the Coca Cola brand as artistic statements or fashion accessories. Lady Gaga rolls her hair in Diet Coke cans in the music video for her 2010 hit “Telephone.”

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Coca Cola is consumed all around the world who likes to drink soda and Nike has athletic clothing and sneakers used by athletes, runners, basketball players and physically active people.

Since the 1920s there have been critics of product placement in film and there are still critics to this day who say it is devious. Publications back then were complaining such as the New York Times in an editorial called “Topics of the Times” accused advertisers of

sneaking onto the screen in dark and devious ways. Articles for advertising are offered to films in the making. Automobile makers graciously offer the use of high-priced cars by studios […] for kitchen scenes the manufacturers of nationally advertised food products willingly fill cupboard shelves (Newell 587).

Robin Good, a media analyst and founder of Master New Media, (a business and media online magazine) has stated that even though product placement has always been part of the Hollywood film industry, it has reached such extremes that it interferes with the creativity of directors and writers. He even says that today’s movies have become “sanitized vehicles for advertising” and as a result he believes that discerning audiences have begun to look elsewhere, especially the Internet for authentic and inspired entertainment (Good 1). It is no secret that product placement runs rampant throughout mainstream media, but nowhere more so than in Hollywood cinema. Even though people know that Hollywood does this, most this fact and actively finance them by buying movie tickets, which funds the production of some of product-infused movie content.                Hollywood has parodied its own greed in the movie Wayne’s World and it is funny because it strikes a nerve with many people.

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The average film has as much product placement as character development and often much more than that. People may say Mike Myers is smart for taking a jab at product placement however, ultimately the studio has the last laugh and as people laugh at the hyper-commercialism of Hollywood, people are fed even more hyper-commercialism. As long as people accept this product placement in cinema people will be subjected to pernicious, insidious and creeping product promotion everywhere. The documentary Behind the Screens shows how advertising serves as a driving force behind Hollywood movies but at the expense of entertainment. The documentary has shown that Hollywood within the last 30 years has entered a period of hyper-commercialism with closer and greater ties to marketing, advertising and product promotion. The next thing the documentary shows is that the methods of product placement are the same as what propaganda is. Filmmakers are enticed into branding gadgets and peripheral items as a way to save money from the expensive budgets they have. The greater the budget, the greater the need to offset its risks with the use of heavy product placement.

There may be critics who complain about Hollywood producers making money from product placement but if there is a high cost then products must be placed in the entertainment in order to get the movie produced. Some movies may not have even been created had they not been funded with the product placement. By seeing actual products that are sold to consumers in movies and TV shows we can relate to them and it will therefore seem more realistic. If people see the products in the movies or the TV show people may want to buy those products because it would remind them of that program. In some movies or television shows the product placement can be more ambiguous and indirect which would make it less obvious. An example of this is in the movie Grease when there is a scene where a Coke sign is in the background but it’s not clear that Coke is actually being consumed at that time. Some of the best movies have been created recently and have made the most money in history. The creative genius of Hollywood is still alive and well. Even though the movies have a ton of product placement it doesn’t sacrifice the quality of that movie. Some of the best product placements are when the products are interwoven into the movie’s storyline. Some examples of this being done are in, You’ve Got Mail, with AOL practically a member of the supporting cast, Wilson, the volleyball in Castaway, comes to life as Tom Hanks’ only friend on a deserted island and Aston Martin for instance profits from every James Bond film as he always drives an Aston Martin (“The Industry” 1). Ultimately, this may be product placement, but it is also a part of the storyline.

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Despite it’s subtlety, it is much better to see a product in a movie or television show rather than in an blatant advertisement. Product placement advertises in a more furtive way, but it is less imposing than watching a commercial or hearing it on the radio or seeing it in a magazine or newspaper. People can relate to characters or movies or shows if they see a specific product and may get them interested in getting it for themselves. Product placement is a good infusion of cash for many television shows and movies and have saved some from cancellation or has allowed them to be created. Ultimately, despite critics, product placement is here to stay and it’s a subtle, effective art.

 

Works Cited

“Geek Trivia: The First Product Placement In Hollywood Was For?” How-to Geek RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Good, Robin. “The Film Industry Has Become Over-Commercialized.” The Film Industry. Ed. Roman Espejo. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2009. Opposing Viewpoints. Rpt. From “Product Placement and Hypercommercialism Pervade Hollywood Film Industry: But No-One Seems To Notice.” MasterNewMedia.org. 2007. Opposing Viewpoints in Context. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Householder, Mike. “Hollywood’s Upcoming ‘Transformers’: Car Ads in Disguise.” Transformers Product Placement. N.p., 02 July 2007. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Newell, Jay, Charles Salmon, T, and Susan Chang. “The Hidden History of Product Placement.”  Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 50.4 (2006): 575-94. Abstract. (n.d.): n. pag. Print.

“The Industry of Product Placement.” Recuperation and Credibility: Product Placement, Irony, Generation X. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

“Top 10 Product Placements Of The Past 10 Years (Paid Or “Organic”).” Advertising Age 85.11 (2014): 18. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

Transformers. Dir. Michael Bay. DreamWorks Pictures, 2007. Film

Vass, Paula. “Uses and Advantages of Product Placement.” Ezine Articles. N.p., 21 June 2012. Web. 06 Dec. 2014.

 

FullSizeRenderNicholas Bellomo is a student at Westchester Community College. He writes for the Viking News, the newspaper for WCC. He describes himself as an avid sports fan and a person who enjoys reading and listening to music.

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