Anatomy of product placement

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As consumers skip ads and balloons of streaming content, brands aim to be everywhere at once.

Refrigerators aren’t movie stars, but they can pose a particular problem when they have a cameo on screen. When Larry David casually answers the door in “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” those shelves must be stocked with food and drink, and each of those items likely has a brand name: Perrier sparkling water, Pacific chicken broth, Clover cottage cheese. . Maybe there’s even a box of Cheerios on top, like in a recent episode of “Euphoria.” The fridge itself will also have a brand, of course. All of this usually has to be negotiated through carefully considered placements that give these products their 15 seconds (or less) of fame.

Product placement has long been a feature of Hollywood. Seeking a boost in brand recognition and association with cool characters, alcohol and auto companies, especially, have paid or engaged for decades in a kind of quid pro quo to get their wares into movies. The earliest documented example was in 1896, when the Lumière brothers, often credited as the first filmmakers, agreed to feature soap in their film “Laundry Day in Switzerland.” But the rise of streaming has led to an explosion in product placement. Brands are looking for new ways to draw attention to their products and productions are looking for creative ways to offset costs. Product placement is now a $23 billion industry, an estimated 14 percent increase from 2020.

“People aren’t paying attention to ads,” said Mike Proulx of research consultancy Forrester. In a recent survey by the group, only 5 percent of online adults in the United States said they rarely skip ads; 74 percent said they did it often. “It’s the holy grail for a brand to be integrated into the actual content itself.” But product placement, often maligned for its obviousness, has to walk a fine line between showing off the product and disappearing seamlessly into the background. “It has to be executed in a way that doesn’t feel like an ad,” Proulx said.

Agencies like Hollywood Branded connect the brands they represent with writers, producers, set decorators and prop masters, who in turn could turn them into storylines. (Hollywood Branded even has a warehouse full of discontinued BlackBerry cell phones, handpicked PassionRoses, minimalist eero Wi-Fi routers, and all sorts of other stuff they can ship to sets at a moment’s notice.)

“Products are part of our lives, they just are,” said Stacy Jones, CEO of Hollywood Branded. “Say you have a Montblanc pen, you automatically think, that character has a pen worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.”

Items can also function as narrative shorthand in scripts. “If you have a whiskey drinker, you know she’s going to be a badass character,” said Erin Schmidt, director of product placement at Branded Entertainment Network, another agency that helps coordinate product placement. “You don’t need to write any more scripts there because the brand gives you that contextual element.”

Most product placement in film and television, Jones said, occurs on a quid-pro-quo basis rather than for a fee. A car company might lend an expensive car to a set in exchange for an appearance on the show, or S’well Water might send a case of bottles to the prop masters for consideration. (With cars, Schmidt said, there’s often another kind of tradeoff: A company may agree to give up a certain number that can be destroyed in one action scene, in exchange for appearing in another scene.) There are also paid placements. , but particularly with the big streaming companies like Netflix and HBO, it’s more often a matter of lend-and-trade deals to cut production budgets.

Ruby Moshlak, a self-identified “prop lover” who manages props on film and television sets, often works on a tight budget to create a realistic fictional world. “There’s nothing like a free $5,000 espresso setup,” she said. She described a delicate dance of finding the right object for the right character, like which car Queen Latifah should drive in “The Equalizer.” “Jaguar’s crossover SUV really fit the character well,” Moshlak said. “It’s kind of a family car, but it’s still great, with a retail value of less than $50,000, which is upper-middle class, but it’s not that different from the sedan.” Moshlak was able to get it for free, in exchange for the exposure.

Which is not to say that product placement always goes smoothly. Blatant product placement can damage a plot and affect credibility. “If James Bond was shown drinking only milk, or getting into a Ford Fiesta and not an Aston Martin, viewers would feel like that crossed some kind of line,” said June Deery, a professor of media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. who has studied the marketing of the American media. Also, the restrictions associated with specific contracts can be creatively limiting. “Two years ago, I worked on a romantic comedy with really important actors and it was disgusting,” Moshlak said. “In every scene, there was a money deal in place. There was a kitchen appliance that appeared in a third of the movie for over a million dollars, literally written into history.”

The success of product placement as a marketing strategy is based on the interplay between suspended reality on screen and the free market economy of the off-screen world. Just how powerful this exchange can be became clear when a character on “And Just Like That” had a heart attack while riding in a Peloton, causing the brand’s real-life stock to plummet. On the other hand, the Eggo breakfast brand was reinvigorated when it appeared on the show “Stranger Things” as a key plot point of the series. (After a few years of lagging sales, it was reported that there was a 14 percent increase after the show’s first season aired.)

Certain items can take on an almost talismanic importance, like the BlackBerry used by Kevin Spacey’s character in the Netflix series “House of Cards.” “The BlackBerry was introduced in the first year, and then Samsung wanted to take over, but he was already established as a character with a BlackBerry,” Jones said. “You can’t always change it like that.” And while BlackBerries were supplanted in the popular imagination by iPhones, and were eventually discontinued altogether in 2020, the phone now gets a second life on shows like “And Just Like That,” providing period flair.

While traditional product placement was primarily oriented around objects, less tangible brands are also looking for placements. Zillow, for example, approached the Branded Entertainment Network about six years ago to work their way up the scripts. “Zillow is really looking to capitalize on life change: marriage, moving, a new job, things like that,” Schmidt said. “So we just go to the creator community and bring that essence to them, and then they’ll come to us and say, ‘I have this great opportunity where a character moves to Chicago for a new job, maybe we can bring Zillow there.’ The site ended up with “Grace and Frankie,” “Never Have I Ever,” “Sweet Magnolias,” “Promising Young Woman,” “Book Club,” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” among others, and the The agency experimented with different strategies to work on it. Schmidt said the verbal mentions, inserted into the script, worked well for Zillow. “We found really fun ways to integrate it verbally, like, ‘I did Zillo to your house and it’s only worth x.’ “Said Schmidt. “Saying ‘I’m going to Zillow that house’ became part of the cultural norm.”

Tech companies are experimenting with tools to place products on shows that have already been recorded and artificial intelligence solutions that could swap one brand of alcohol for another, or a bottle of Pepsi for what might originally have been a bottle of Coke. , essentially selling placements as advertisements. space for different markets. Jones noted that this can be tricky to pull off successfully since it can be a kind of art to select what belongs on the screen in the first place, almost similar to an object casting process.

At an industry conference in May, Amazon announced it would experiment with a beta version of “virtual product placement,” which the company is testing on shows like “Reacher,” “Jack Ryan” and the “Bosch” franchise. “Create the ability to shoot your series without thinking about everything that is required with traditional locations during production,” Henrik Bastin, CEO of Fabel Entertainment and executive producer of “Bosch: Legacy,” said at the conference. “Instead, you can sit down with the final cut and see where a product could fit seamlessly and naturally into the narrative.” An example frame from “Bosch” shows edited M&M’s in a scene next to an office coffee machine.

Skeptics of product placement, particularly those upset by obviously staged instances, might see it as a cynical way of building a fictional world. “I think the broader context is that product placement acclimates viewers to the inevitability of capitalist exchange,” said Deery, the professor. “It normalizes the idea that there is a business motive behind almost everything we experience in our increasingly mediated and branded experience.”

But, Deery noted, this is “its own kind of realism” in a world where brands reign supreme. On the BBC, for example, and on some American television networks, the marks are blurred or hidden from the camera, creating their own kind of weird visualization, a world that approximates our own but doesn’t look much like it. the.

“Everything is a brand,” Jones said. “Your product places roses, almonds. You can make roofs, tiles.” And of course the fridge. “Refrigerators are full of real products, and you want that to be realistic,” he added. Unless it’s full of Tupperware. But Tupperware is also a brand.

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