Product placement – how and why it works

A tiny little “P“ in the upper corner of our TV warns us from now on that we’re going to be subject to product placement. But it still has to be subtly designed – like an Easter egg hunt or a “Where is Wally” picture – by law.

Watch out for this little P - it makes you want to buy all sorts of things. (pic: Product Placement Logo)

Only since February 2011 has the ban of product placement been lifted in Europe. However, the little P doesn’t really seem to have triggered major discussions.

Probably that is because we have been familiar with heavy product placement for a long time already?

In the US, companies like Apple and Coca Cola have splashed out many dollars to get their products on display in movies and shows.

“Product placement is something that dates back to at least the early 1950s when Gordon’s Gin paid to have Katharine Hepburn‘s character in “The African Queen” toss loads of their product overboard,” writes Katherine Neer.

Why product placement?

The simplest answer to that is: because it seems to work.

Here are a few recent examples.

  • One of the most commonly discussed is the placement of Reese’s Pieces in the movie “E.T.”  This prime spot essentially catapulted these tiny peanut butter morsels into mainstream popularity. (Neer)
  • Ray-Ban claims that sales of its Predator 2 sunglasses worn in the movie Men in Black, tripled after the release of the movie in 1997. (Max Sutherland)
  • In 2004, product placement reached a new level with Audi’s involvement with the movie “I, ROBOT.” Audi didn’t just place the RSQ in the movie; Audi created the RSQ for the movie. (Neer) Will Smith seems to be a factor too…
  • Coca Cola had bright red cups placed on the judge’s tables at ‘American Idol’ and Apple Mac’s are literally part of every other movie/ TV show.

(How) does it work?

But we are bombarded with ads all the time – on billboards, via email, on leaflets, even on atm screens – why don’t we hate product placements as much as some hate ad breaks?

Advertising expert, Max Sutherland, knows.

“Agenda-setting says the media don’t tell us what to think. But they do tell us what to think about!”

Sutherland further explains: “Movies, TV programs, cartoons and pop songs don’t tell us what to think but we infer from them what is popular and what other people think. Each appearance of a leading brand like Coke, Nike or BMW reaffirms its star-status and helps maintain its leadership image.”

Another reason Sutherland mentions is that we can’t get away from product placements as easily as we can tune out ad breaks.

Rejecting product placement would mean rejecting whole TV shows and movies. It would mean that we would have to sacrifice entertainment for a chance to not be ‘brainwashed’.

The rules of product placement

European public broadcasters are a little sceptical about the legal concept of product placements.

That is why there is a set of rules that TV stations have to stick to (source: BBC).

  • Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
  • The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
  • It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat. (How does Coke fit in there?)
  • And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

What to think about this?

Product placement is exploiting the way humans work.

If we see someone popular, someone successful, someone pretty holding, using, stroking, loving a certain product, we want it too.

But that is also true for when our friends or family members are surrounded by cool gadgets that have some kind of popularity attached to them.

That can be anything from a phone to a coffee machine – we will be more likely to want it if it was recommended by a person we respect/ admire.

In that sense product placement is some sort of aspirational wannabe-peer pressure, an exploitation of the identification with our role models.

So, the next time you add frame-less superhero sunglasses, cyber cars and gin to your shopping list (in that order) don’t be too surprised…

This clip from the movie Wayne’s World does not support any product placement, or does it?:

Find Michael Shawn Keller’s blog in other addictive habits here.

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2 Responses to Product placement – how and why it works

  1. Pingback: Product placement basics » Brandident Blog

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