In June 1993, boys’ dreams became true: Jurassic Park was the first movie to feature
true-to-life dinosaurs roaming the international movie screens. The film revolutionized CGI and fascinated young and old viewers alike. But the life-like dinosaurs were not the only main attraction in Steven Spielberg’s adventure classic. Jurassic Park was the centre of the elaborate marketing campaign of a large German automotive company: Mercedes used the motion picture to present its new line of off-road vehicles in which the protagonists drove through their adventure. Today, 22 years after the original Jurassic Park, the franchise’s third sequel, Jurassic World, hits cinemas. Again, young and old movie fans roam the theatres to get fascinated by the newest special effects. And again, Mercedes uses the movie to promote their new line of off-road cars.
Such product placements are common in most of today’s movies and TV series. Product placement is defined as the purposeful placement of a brand or its products as props in audiovisual media (mainly film, television and video games). The products are usually placed for a fee. But why is there anything like product placement? How does it work and can you use it in PR?
The “why” is answered easily: successful product placement generates a win-win-situation for both sides. Movie and television producers finance part of their production costs through product placements. For the company that places its products, product placement is an effective way of advertising. Effective because on the one hand it generates an enormous coverage reach. Depending on the content and genre of the movie, the target audience might span several age groups. On the other hand, product placement increases the chance of multiple contacts with the placement, since a viewer might watch a movie several times or show it to friends on DVD. Another advantage: because of the information overload that breaks down on people every day, a large part of advertisement is not noticed at all. The acceptance of product placements is much higher than that of traditional advertising – given the products are well integrated in the movie’s story line so that their placement is not noticed as advertisement. Also, one can expect a positive image transfer. If the movie is a success the placed product is also perceived in a positive way. The same applies to actors or film characters that interact with the placed product in the movie, especially when the actor or character represents the product’s target audience. Thus, the character’s image is transferred onto the product. A prime example for this is the James Bond movies. The smart gentleman-spy always drives an Aston Martin – or a BMW in some cases – and thus bestows these companies a positive image gain as well as increased popularity. And honestly: who does not want to feel like James Bond driving through town in the latest roadster?
However, product placement must not be presented in an aggressive way. There are dozens of negative examples where product placement went wrong and was acted out too obviously. In these cases, product placement is perceived as distracting, laughable and – in the worst case – generates a negative or hostile attitude towards the product. That does not only damage the movie’s image, but also that of the product. An example: Director Michael Bay is not very well known for his sensitive melodramas, but rather for blunt action flicks. In The Island (2005) he manages to place more than 20 brands and products in such an obvious and ridiculous way, that the viewer cannot ignore them. That not only had consequences for the movie’s reputation – it was generally panned by critics and audiences – but also on the reputation and perception of the brands that were advertised in the film.
Nowadays, product placement can be considered as an established PR activity. Product placements in movies or television formats provide companies with the opportunity to present their products to a broad audience, outside of the more common ways of advertisement. At best, product placements are not recognized as advertisement at all. That is also the big advantage of product placement: content which is not regarded as advertisement is perceived and accepted more positive than straight forward advertising.
Product placement also provides very interesting opportunities regarding storytelling and storyshowing. Eventually, there is no better way of storytelling than to embed your product in a film plot. Furthermore, product placement can reach a broad and heterogeneous audience. Good product placement can also be used as the starting point for a wide range of other PR activities, like movie screenings for selected journalists, or protagonists and actors can be included in the brand’s PR strategies and storytelling.
From a PR perspective one also needs to consider the German legislation regarding product placement. Product placement in movies is permitted without any restriction, since it is the filmmaker’s and producers’ decision to which extend they want to collaborate with the advertising industry. However, with TV it gets more complicated: product placement in television underlies various regulations based on the Interstate Broadcasting Agreement (Rundfunkstaatsvertrag) and EU guidelines. It is basically forbidden to place products in TV shows but there are dozens of special arrangements, for example regarding fictional programs and so called “light entertainment” – a term that is hard to define. Furthermore, product placement in TV must be pointed out or else it is regarded as surreptitious advertising.
Product placement is a promising activity for PR manager, especially today where media and advertising are omnipresent. But it is also a tough challenge, given all the legislation that needs to be considered. Also, one needs a certain finesse to do product placements right and integrate them in a movie’s plot. But successful product placement can be the starting point for a whole lot of different PR activities to further optimize a product’s or brand’s popularity and image. A recent example is the above-mentioned film Jurassic World: the movie’s enormous success also brought a lot of positive media coverage and image gain for Mercedes’ new line of off-road vehicles.
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