Updated on 01.21.11

Some Thoughts on Product Placement

Trent Hamm

Please take a moment and watch this YouTube video before we get started. I’d embed it here, but the person who uploaded it has disallowed embedding of the video. If you’re unable to watch, the video is a series of clips from the movie Transformers, showing the absurd amount of product placement within the film itself.

What do I mean by that? Characters are often very deliberate about using certain products, like the repeated iPod use throughout the film. The camera angles are chosen to show the logos on various products, like the Hewlett-Packard logos all over the place. Many scenes use giant corporate logos as backdrops, like key discussions that take place in front of a giant Burger King logo.

Quite often, these product placements occur in scenes that highlight a particular emotion.

An intense, exciting scene might highlight a particular product that the maker wants you to associate excitement with, like the individual getting revved up while listening to his iPod.

A sentimental scene might highlight another product that a marketer wants you to feel sentimental about, like the family using an HP computer (ridiculously marked with the HP logo on the monitor) to teleconference with a member that’s far away.

One scene might highlight attractive people (like Megan Fox) eating and include an enormous Burger King logo in the background. If we’re even slightly hungry, our hunger might be triggered and we also see someone being satisfied with food… and there’s a big logo there to remind us who made it happen!

Here’s the truth: it’s not the direct advertisements that infest television and movie watching. It’s the indirect stuff, like this, that is incorporated directly into the program I’m viewing. The emotional tint of a well-crafted movie scene ends with me staring directly at a corporate logo with an emotion created by that movie running through my head and coursing through my veins. Even if it’s not on a conscious level, I make some association of that emotion – excitement, sentiment, humor, joy – with the product or product logo I’m being shown.

That association pops up when I’m making a purchasing decision. Should I buy this item right now? If I’m hungry and I see the Burger King logo, did my hunger not take a little bit more of a bounce?

I don’t mind the use of real-world products in movies or television. The problem comes in when the movies and television programs hit certain emotional chords with the viewer, then proceed to match that emotion with logos and products. Remind me again – am I watching a television program or an advertisement? I’m also not stating that people should never watch television or movies, either.

Instead, I offer the following suggestions.

Be conscious of product placement. If you notice them doing this, then it becomes at least somewhat less effective. You’ll laugh at the product placement and they won’t get the effect that they want from it.

Don’t spend idle time watching television. If you’re sitting around with some time to burn, do something else. Read a book. Do a sudoku puzzle. Get a little bit of exercise. Practice a musical instrument. Meditate. Take a nap. Put on some music and dance. There’s nothing wrong with watching a movie or a television program if you’ve been planning on watching it, but if you’re just idly web surfing, you’re not really thinking about what you’re watching, and that’s a perfect time for product placement to strike.

Use conscious buying techniques. Before you buy anything, wait ten seconds and think about why you’re buying that item. If it’s an item that costs more than $20, give yourself thirty days to think it over (unless it’s an emergency).

Understand why you like a particular brand. “I just do” doesn’t cut it, nor does “All my friends do.” If you can’t articulate why you like a particular brand or product, then there’s likely no reason for it other than marketing.

In the end, the best solution for being successful in the modern world is to be thoughtful about what you’re doing. The more thought and consideration you put into your actions, the more likely you are to find success.

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  1. Alexandra says:

    I never bought anything that has been product placed in a movie before, mostly because most movies are Hollywood and carry american specific companies (like burger king, not very common in my country) and I tend to be aware of product placement. It is, however, a nifty way to advertise without making me sit through 15 minutes of commercials before the TRAILERS start in the theatre.

  2. louise ingram says:

    This is so true- I’m not hungry but I’m sitting in motorway services about 20m from a burger king & I can smell the food. As I keep reading burger king in the post, I suddenly have a burger craving! I’m resisting but it amused me!

  3. I don’t think Burger King is the reason Megan Fox is so good looking…so, I find that scene ironic.

  4. Interested Reader says:

    I get your argument but what do you expect in a movie that is, itself, nothing but a product placement?

    The toy transformers came first, then the comic, then the cartoon and then the movie – and all of those were made to get parents and kids to buy Transformers?

  5. Jill says:

    I don’t think obvious product placement like those examples are going to make most people I know rush out and buy stuff.

    It’s when the product placement is done so subtly, and is pivotal to the plot of the movie…ie) in ET, when Elliott uses Reeses Pieces to lure ET out of the forest.

    Another candy company (I unfortunately forget the name right now) had the opportunity to have their product used, and they said no. Reeses Pieces said yes, their sales went through the roof, and the rest is history.

    I think it’s because of the way the product was used in the movie, not just the fact that it’s there that makes the difference.

  6. chuck says:

    i think ET movie originally wanted to use M&Ms but whoever owns M&Ms declined. hard to believe a company declining free advertising via product placement nowadays.

    given that, weather we like it or not, our lives are dominated by products and labels so avoiding all brand names in a movie wouldn’t be very realistic.

  7. Joel says:

    Trent, you’re one of the few pf bloggers that consistently points out the psychological aspects of consumerism; keep it up!

    A book a HIGHLY recommend everyone read before any sort of major purchase (actually, it applies to purchases of all cost) is “Influence: The Art of Persuasion” by Dr. Robert Cialdini. He covers the psychological tactics used by marketers and those attempting to part you with your money and teaches you how to disarm those tactics; fantastic stuff that’s stuck with me. The book was written by one of my professors I had while attending ASU; it’s incredibly well written and based on personal experience of his (he actually took several years off to do the research for it) and scientific studies. It’s a solid read.

    – Joel

  8. Kathy M says:

    It’s not free. Companies pay a high premium for those spots. A friend of mine in advertising worked many years exclusively with product placement.

  9. Mari says:

    I have found your articles on this topic to be good reminders. I’ve been consciously cutting back on my mindless use of technology for the past year or so. It really is rewarding to be less connected and less (mentally) surrounded by stuff. My enjoyment at the movies has really diminished over the last few years and a large part of that is related to continuous product placement that has nothing to do with story.

  10. Pat S. says:

    Product placement is huge business. Its subliminal messaging, as you said in your article. The emotions, the circumstances, and situations that the products are associated with, are burned into our subconscious. Its exactly the same way that cigarettes were glamorized for years by the media, by having characters constantly smoking on screen.

  11. Kate says:

    I think your argument in principle is completely right on. I would like to throw something out there, though. Occasionally I do choose where I bring my business by what my friends like, depending upon what that business is. Their preference of Jiffy over Great Value brand doesn’t mean much to me, but, as an example, a little while ago I had some serious problems with my car. I am new in town and don’t know many of the mechanics, so I asked a friend which she preferred, and she gave me her answer based reasonableness and reliability. Really, I didn’t have any reason other than my friend’s preference to choose that mechanic, but I’m glad I did, looking back.

    I realize that you’re mostly thinking about the Peter Pan vs. Great Value thing, but I thought this merited mentioning.

  12. jak says:

    Can you imagine how odd it would seem to have a movie with out a single “recognizable” item? There’s something to be said for the attempt of the movie producer to bring items into the movie that are “comfortable” to the viewer.

    If as a consumer one is easily swayed by product placements, then as a savvy shopper we FAIL. Product placement means nothing to me and it’s nothing more than a interesting tidbit in a movie…

  13. Kai says:

    I always remembered being annoyed when reading a book and hearing about the characters going to ‘funland! or drinking spry-cola or something. Or watching a move and seeing such things.
    I think brands are part of life, and when a movie takes place in our world, hiding the brands just seems unrealistic. But then, some really do turn everything into a commercial (transformers, as mentioned, being conceived that way in the first place).
    I think there is room between the two to allow a character to grab a coke without turning it into an extended shot that lingers on the logo. Gratuitous product placement is annoying. Hiding all logos looks like another world.
    Of course, when your movie is set in another world, it makes no sense at all to have earth products, and we can happily go without.

  14. Pete says:

    Sometimes product placement will lend verisimilitude to a movie (except when it goes over the top – not all cars on the road are made by GM), but this sort of thing has been going on for decades. I noticed it quite a lot last time I watched the Back to the Future movies a month or so ago – see http://backtothefuture.wikia.com/wiki/Product_placement for more detail.

  15. Megan says:

    Some TV shows are taking this even further now. I’ve noticed at least two different TV shows including character dialogue about the features and benefits of a particular car brand. For me, it makes me lose some respect for a show I otherwise enjoy.

  16. Golfing Girl says:

    Even my 7-year old daughter catches this. We were watching the Tooth Fairy (with The Rock) this weekend. She kept seeing and shouting out the advertisers in the ice rink. “Mommy! Nationwide!” I was waiting for her to sing the jingle next…

  17. Vickie says:

    I’ve seen the transformer movies and never even noticed the product placements. Thanks for the information. ☺

  18. Carmen says:

    As entertainment changes, I would expect a great deal more of this since we don’t have the patience to watch commercials and we don’t want to pay more for our entertainment. I agree that it is important to be aware of that product placement and identify it. Especially important in children’s programming!

  19. Steve says:

    Tranformers (both of them) were the epitome of commercially-driven movies. Most product placement (and most movies) are far more subtle.

  20. Jason says:

    Apple is pretty famous for never paying for product placement. In fact they have very specific rules about who and how can show their products. I don’t know if burger king paid for their spot but with the apple spots it’s safe to say that it’s more of a reflection of our times (as some other readers have said) than product placement.

  21. Janis says:

    I just saw a quote of Marshall McLuhan’s from 1967 that reminded me of this post and I had to share it:

    “If an ad has become so environmental as to be unperceived, that’s when it’s really doing its work.”

    Trent, this reinforces your point: to help protect ourselves from this kind of advertising, we need to be aware of it.

    Ah, that McLuhan; he was so ahead of his time!

  22. Jennifer says:

    I found that movie annoying overall, and the product placement especially annoying. I hate when movie scripts are altered, or the shooting of a movie is changed to highlight a product. It’s one thing if someone is just drinking a pepsi but it’s another if the logo is perfectly placed to make sure it’s right-side-up & the person’s hand isn’t obscuring the logo while they’re drinking it. If I see a car in a movie that looks cool I would think to myself, wow, that’s a cool car, I wonder what kind of car it is. But in this movie all car scenes are shot with the decals front and center. Lame acting, lame product placement, lame story, lame movie.

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