Product placement – It’s the ‘voice in the back of your head’ equivalent to advertising, lurking in plain sight within a large amount of your entertainment media. You may not exactly realise it’s there, but somehow you find yourself unknowingly compelled by it. There’s a lot of good examples of its use, but thankfully, there are also, equally, a f*cktonne of bad examples. I am particularly thankful of Fast & Furious 7 – brought to you by Corona, or the latest Michael Bay wank-fest, brought to you by every brand ever!
For better or worse, there is a level of commercial necessity to including product placement in any media. In film, the most obvious purveyance of product placement, it’s a chance for brands to potentially access millions of captivated audience members, viewing the use of said product in a near-real-life/relatable situation. If they put some thought into it, this could also be their direct market. And the flip-side is that it provides a great avenue for providing additional funding to the ever growing expenses required to manufacture blockbuster films.
There’s no doubt that people are willing to accept a level of product placement in their entertainment, but only to the extent that they don’t consciously register it. Good product placement will do this and still have some subtle impact. The unfortunate flip-side is that it can be jarring and completely remove the viewer from their experience, whether it be The Rock annoyingly wearing the same shirt for 3 movies straight, or Brad Pitt stopping suddenly to have a Pepsi (a Pitt-stop…? *crickets*…I’m sorry…) in World War Z.
The Ghosts in the (Editing) Machine
Now the most obvious example, as I said, is Film. For reasons previously stated, it can be very effective. Remember all the Ford Explorers in Jurassic Park? Wilson in Cast Away? The McDonalds’ discussion in Pulp Fiction (my favourite)? The ABSOLUTELY F*CKING EVERYTHING in every James Bond ever!? Well some you will, and many you won’t. The fact is that when it comes down to it, any form of entertainment is an avenue for advertising and that definitely doesn’t need a PHD to figure out. But some are less obvious than others… Did you know that Norway’s tourism body has been capitalising on the fact that the movie Frozen is set there? Probably not, I didn’t even realise it was set in Norway, home of the worst food in the World!
And then, if you extrapolate that to entertainment outside of Film: Books, Magazines, Newspapers, Social Media, Television, even News, you see that the coverage is almost total! Take for example, Native Advertising. This is still a relatively effective way of reaching people. It became a major phenomenon in 2014 (however, in my opinion, was massively overused and is being less well received) and there are hardly any places you can look without it popping its well-presented, tidily edited little face up, mostly likely featuring an attractive hipster with unusually white teeth.
There’s just that one little thing that pops up that might raise suspicions. It’s what the arrow above is pointing to. A little word, small print, which says “Sponsored”. Now think back to any Buzzfeed article, any “How to…” list, “Top 10…” list. Most of these fit under the “Sponsored Content”category. But companies can also be more subtle about how they go about it. They may pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds every once in a while, or you may read an article which you feel relates very closely to your thoughts or opinions. This is a very subtle and very clever/underhanded form of advertising called “Discovery Marketing”.
Hey, Look at this Awesome (insert thing on the internet) I found!
Advertisers will tell you, the best way that they can sell you something is to get into your head and be there at the right time, before you think you even need them. They’re justifying it as having a deeper relationship with you. But, what they’re really saying is “Oh hey, buy this!” The way that Discovery Marketing does this is slightly given away in its name. It makes you feel like you’ve genuinely come across something new in your usual, day-to-day doing of whatever it is you do.
Not surprisingly, advertisers are using big-data to, in a sense, manipulate you. Everything you do now is measured, quantified and calculated. It’s not quite Minority Report, or the more and more relevant movie Idiocracy, but you have innumerable devices now which run on platforms owned by data collection companies (Google, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook, yes, them). This is in your phone, your home entertainment, your home devices and, soon enough, your car! And it’s done in real time, so that reminder you got about that trip you’re taking? Well Google Now is about to tell you what cafes you can go to when you get there!
All of your thoughts are belong to us!
Well, not really. I’ll admit, that this has so far sounded slightly like I’m about to call for the end of the internet and that I’m going to say we’re living in an Orwellian society circa 1981! But we don’t. Far from it, and many think that we might actually be heading that way (at least, if you’re an Apple die-hard, you certainly are!). But in the end, it comes down to a basic, fundamentally critical question. Does it work?
Product placement, in all its forms, whether it be print, film, commercial radio, social media, whichever, has a threshold. That’s what I addressed earlier. It only works as long as it doesn’t remove the viewer from their current experience. Up to that point, the viewer is most likely unaware of it and will most likely come to realise a couple days later that it may have had an impact, since they’ve gone out and bought a shit-load of clothes, somewhat resembling what Selena Gomez wore to Coachella!
But when that point is reached, it can create a backlash against the company for being deceptive, clingy and underhanded, trying to sneak its wares into your well-earned break time where all you want to do is have a look at what’s going on without being offered a gift-card for Starbucks, or to see The Rock just wear an ordinary shirt in a film about cars (because that’s definitely what it was).
Consider Social Media. Some companies have been known to use product placement in the worst of times, piggy-backing off historically, religiously, or particularly tragically, significant events to promote themselves. It causes outrage and sets any company unfortunate enough to do such things back years! Whether they did it accidentally, such as American Apparel’s use of the Challenger Shuttle disaster explosion (above) for an American Independence day ad, referring to “fireworks” (place face to palm, via rib-cage), or Woolworths Australia, the “Fresh Food People”, using, with good intention, the most historically significant war event of our nation, to promote themselves in the following manner:
Not the Be-All and End-All of Advertising
The only way we could end up in the dreary, Orwellian style dystopia, would be for advertisers to always get it right (and for total government/corporate control, globally, so not likely!). Fortunately, they don’t. And the results are always going to be very cringe-worthy, embarrassing, hilarious, or downright infuriating. In the end, the element of choice is always there. A person will always have the end decision to buy the Jeans or take the holiday or drive the car and advertisers can only go so far to creep into our lives. When they over-step, they’re very quickly cut back to their side of the line and reminded that they have nothing more to offer than things to buy. If they get it wrong, particularly in the “Sorry we used the Challenger Explosion as Fireworks” kinda way, then people will go elsewhere!
Funnily enough, I am kinda one of those marketing people, trying to burrow into your mind. But I see it as being a skill in nuance. Product placement, native advertising, sponsored media, it all needs tact. It’s not the main communication piece you’re sending and should never be anymore than subtle, background nudging! It’s a gentle reminder of what you’re selling and should only work to reinforce your central message, never work alongside it! When it comes to this kind of advertising, there’s a principal I like to purvey. Wise words that anyone can relate to and holds lessons for us all:
So next time you sit down to watch House of Cards, read an article in a magazine (yes, an article, not an ad on the page where ads should be) or read “the top 15 ways the Walking Dead was the realest” (for example), take note of whether there’s any advertising based in it, give it a score about how subtle/obvious it was and forever judge the brand for doing so… Or make a drinking game out of it!