About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

Product placement jumps off movie screens

Sometimes when I go to the movies I play a game of "Where's Waldo?" but rather than searching a printed page for a hidden cartoon figure, I search the film for logo-proud products that turn up in the hands of the picture's stars or strategically placed in a frame.

For example, it was hard to miss the Shell logo on the handle of the gasoline nozzle in Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate." The camera lingered lovingly on it, no matter that the woman pumping the gas was the devil's own handmaiden.

And last summer the ubiquitous pharmaceutical industry must have gotten a lift from the product placement spot slipped into "The Sixth Sense." Remember when Bruce Willis' character opened the medicine cabinet to look for clues to his wife's state of mind and fingered a bottle of Pfizer's antidepressant Zoloft?

Then there was the picture-in-a-picture moment in "Analyze This" when Robert De Niro's angst-ridden mobster watched a television commercial for Merrill Lynch investments -- and so did the film's audience.

In fact, the game is getting too easy. But that's the point. Entertainment industry experts say the days of searching the screen for sotto voce references to a brand name are over.

The new world in entertainment marketing leaps out of the screen into the world the audience inhabits, traveling under intriguing titles such as viral marketing, street marketing and wild posting.

"Ten to 12 years ago when the term entertainment marketing was bandied about what that meant was product placement in television or film," said Kelly Weinberg, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Los Angeles-based international entertainment marketing agency RPMC.

"Entertainment marketing today probably means a myriad of 20 to 25 strategies in terms of associating your product with the world of film, TV, DVD, music, sports and extreme sports."

The goal is the same: to persuade viewers to buy a product because their favorite film star is shown using it, and at the same time help ease production costs for increasingly pricey film projects. But experts say increasingly product placement alone is not enough.

"It's still happening and it's very prevalent and very viable for marketing companies, but the key difference is it's not just getting your product into the film anymore, it's coming out of the theaters, taking your partnership and your film to the people," Weinberg said.


Los Angeles agency Norm Marshall & Associates, credited with parking a BMW in James Bond's garage in "Goldeneye," traces product placement in movies back to the 1940s when N.W. Ayer, advertising agency for diamond giant De Beers, arranged for glamorous film stars to be draped in its gems on screen.

In the 1950s Ace Comb sales soared after James Dean swept one through his hair in "Rebel Without a Cause." And more recently Reese's Pieces sales rocketed 66 percent in three months after the 1982 release of "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," which had a tie-in to the Hershey candy.

Marshall, who founded his agency in 1979, said new marketing strategies include those kinds of traditional product placement spots and more. His agency negotiated a deal that involved featuring Heineken beer in last summer's hit film "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" as well as promotions in malls and liquor stores where audiences shopped and in bars and restaurants, which hosted "Austin Powers" theme nights.

"It was the largest sales promotion Heineken had ever done. It was in 32,000-plus retail outlets around the country. The whole thing was a really comprehensive effort themed to the movie," Marshall said.

And that helped stretch studio marketing dollars. The average marketing budget for a studio picture is about $25 million. "Typically a studio will spend a majority of that in three to four weeks before the release of the film. They're buying all kinds of TV ads in a condensed period," he said.

"When you add Heineken's push to it it really becomes a highly visible property and it creates a life of its own. It has excitement and gets people into the seats."

Did it work? Marshall called "Austin Powers" "very successful," saying it made more than $240 million.


Without "strategic alliances" some films simply could not be made, said John Zamoiski, chairman and president of the Product Marketing Association, a New York-based group specializing in entertainment communications.

"Where product placement doesn't work, for example, is with period films," said Zamoiski, who has firsthand experience with the genre as the marketing agency for the cable television network, Arts & Entertainment.

Last year's Emmy award-winning A&E miniseries "Horatio Hornblower," based on the C.S. Forester books, had a budget of just over $1 million, he said. The challenge was to use those limits to find and market the series to an audience interested in the adventures of an 18th-century British midshipman.

Zamoiski and his team assumed the role of late 20th century adventurers and uncovered what he called "interesting alliances." One involved a tie-in with Strategy First's CD-rom game "Man of War," which was based on frigate battles like those depicted in the Hornblower series.

To help promote it, Zamoiski's PMA convinced Windjammer cruises to participate in an off-the-shelf display of the game and offer retailers who displayed the game a chance to win one of their tall-ship excursions. "The display celebrated 'Horatio Hornblower' on A&E, they got an off-the-shelf display, and we got promotion for the movies," Zamoiski said.

PMA also worked with 9,000 libraries, many of which featured all 11 "Horatio Hornblower" books, and Nautical Heritage Societies, which enlisted local radio disc jockeys as captains in mock tall ship battles to promote the A&E series.

"We spent half a million dollars on nothing but through strategic alliances. We delivered $13 million in measured media value," Zamoiski said.

The investment paid off: "Horatio Hornblower" garnered the highest rating among men in the history of A&E, the network is contracting for the next Hornblower series, and the film won the 1999 Best Miniseries Emmy.

PMA's "Hornblower" strategy was successful in part because it targeted a specific audience. And RPMC's Weinberg said that focus is key to entertainment marketing.

Grass-roots marketing or street marketing, for example, targets Generation Y or Generation X audiences by bringing products to their turf -- to raves and public parks, for example. Wild posting -- putting up 10 posters at a building n site or other locations that appear to be illegal -- also reaches younger audiences where they live.

Baby boomers might succumb to what Weinberg called viral marketing, or "influencing the influencers." But no matter what it is called, the idea is simple: Movies and celebrities sell products on screen and off. Marketing agencies have decided there is no longer any reason to hide it.

The game is over. In today's marketing universe audiences playing "Where's Waldo?" with "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) would not have to count up the alphabet by one letter to spell out the name of computer HAL in order to uncover -- IBM.


Mary Gabriel, April 10, 2000, news.excite.com

Copyright © 1995-2000 Excite Inc., 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.