December 2, 2015
In Matt Damon’s The Martian, he stars as a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars and must fight for survival against the unforgiving extraterrestrial environment. NASA is notoriously meticulous about everything it sends into space: every piece of equipment, clothing and food item must be durable enough to withstand space travel, yet light enough to optimize fuel usage. With this in mind, I found it rather bizarre that in The Martian, Matt Damon is shown wearing Nike sneakers in his tent on Mars. Movies require the viewer to suspend some belief, but showing an astronaut on a planet 140 million miles away wearing the same brand of shoes as a basketball player on Earth seems a little too unbelievable. Product placement should come naturally and not interfere with the story.
These days, it’s hard to watch a blockbuster or hit TV show without noticing at least one brand placement. In 2014, Transformers: Age of Extinction featured 55 different brands in its 165 minutes. American Idol and The Biggest Loser have shown brands literally thousands of times since their inceptions. Last year, brands spent $10.58 billion dollars in product placement globally, with the U.S. market representing about half of the spending. This was an increase from the $8.25 billion spent in 2012, and is evidence that brands are seeing positive results.
One of the most successful product-placement campaigns of all time was the appearance of Ray-Ban sunglasses in popular 1980s entertainment. For the cost of $50,000 per year, Ray-Ban sunglasses appeared in more than 60 movies and TV shows each year between 1982 and 1987. In 1981, before establishing this product placement deal, Ray-Ban sold only 18,000 pairs of its now iconic Wayfarer model. In the year following the 1983 release of Risky Business which featured Tom Cruise wearing the sunglasses, Ray-Ban reportedly sold 360,000 Wayfarers. The brand also saw a 40 percent increase in sales of its Aviator models in the seven months following the 1986 release of Top Gun. By the end of the decade, Ray-Ban reached a sales milestone of more than 4 million sunglasses per year.
The success of this product placement can be partially attributed to the cognitive bias known as the “halo effect.” When a likeable character is shown using a product, viewers tend to see the product in a positive light. Tom Cruise was one of the most popular movie stars of this time, so seeing him wear Ray-Ban sunglasses influenced fans to associate the brand with success, fame and the coolness of Maverick in Top Gun.
Product placement offers a few advantages to brands over traditional TV ads. Viewers cannot fast forward, change the channel or tune out, because the brand is shown during the actual programming. Skipping over the product placement would result in the viewer missing parts of the show or movie. Product placement also has the potential for a longer lifespan than a TV spot. A movie or TV show from years ago may still be popular today—giving brands the chance to become part of pop culture. If someone watches Risky Business today, they will still see Tom Cruise wearing the Ray-Ban Wayfarers.
While product placement can offer great exposure for brands, it also comes with risk. By featuring products in movies and TV shows, brands surrender a certain amount of creative control and risk by having their product shown in a way that is inconsistent with their marketing strategy. Just as the “halo effect” can associate a brand with a positive character, a brand could possibly be viewed negatively if a villain or unpopular character is shown using its product. The success of a product placement campaign is also partially dependent on the success of the show in which the product appears. If a brand features its product in a movie that is a box office flop, the company’s marketing budget could have been more effectively used in traditional advertising.
Timing is a key factor when implementing product placement campaign. BMW timed the release of its Z3 model perfectly by featuring the car in the 1995 James Bond hit GoldenEye, resulting in 15,000 preorders. However, movies and TV shows do sometimes experience production delays, which could be disastrous for a brand spending millions on product placement and relying on a certain release date. Timing the release of a product with a movie or show premiere is especially risky for brands that are constantly creating new models—cars and smartphones, for example—because the product quickly becomes last year’s model.
The line between the creative integrity of a show and the goal to maximize its profitability can also be blurred when it comes to product placement. When Heineken reached a $45 million deal to feature its beer in the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall, it was a lucrative opportunity for both the brand and the production company. However, some long-time Bond fans were upset to see 007 drinking a beer rather than his famous martini, “shaken, not stirred.” Some fans were also outraged almost 20 years prior to see the British spy driving a German BMW instead of his usual Aston Martin. While these details are small and did not affect the plot, they did somewhat alter the classic character by attempting to increase the movie’s revenue.
The best examples of product placement intelligently match the brand with the story, scene and character. Ray-Ban Aviators fit perfectly with Tom Cruise in Top Gun because he portrayed a pilot—someone who would naturally wear aviator-style sunglasses. With the growing number of views on platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Instant Video, brands are constantly looking for the opportunity to make an impression outside of their traditional advertising. As product placement becomes increasingly prevalent, entertainment companies and brands will develop more ways to more seamlessly integrate products into movies and TV shows.