It all started when E.T. was lured from his hiding place using Reese’s Pieces.

While back then Hershey, the manufacturer of Reese’s Pieces, did not pay to have their product featured in E.T., Hershey agreed to promote the movie with $1 million of advertising, and in exchange for this contribution Hershey could use E.T. in its own advertising.

Within two weeks after the premiere of the movie, sales of Reese’s Pieces went through the roof and sales increased by 65%. From then on, product placement was widely recognized as a highly effective means to reach potential customers. It did not take long before the featuring of products became somewhat of a standard in the movie industry.

Reese's Pieces in E.T. (1982, Universal Pictures, screen capture)
Reese’s Pieces in E.T. (1982, Universal Pictures, screen capture)

What had started with an extraterrestrial eating chocolate candy has over time been done in many different ways. Sales of the pinot noir ‘Blackstone’ increased 150% in the three months after the movie ‘Sideways’ in which two men go on a trip through a wine-growing valley. Ray-Ban saw an increase of 50% in sales after Tom Cruise wore its sunglasses in risky business, and Omega had an increase of 40% in sales after James Bond wore an Omega watch in the movie ‘Goldeneye’.

Now days there is no doubt anymore that product placement works. But how does it work exactly? How can the featuring of products in movies lead to an increase in sales?

Transformational advertising

Opposed to what you might think, product placement is not effective because a wide variety of people watch movies, it’s effective because people project themselves into the movies and see themselves with the products. This process is called ‘transformational advertising’ – we start associating certain psychological characteristics with a brand.

How effective product placement really is therefore depends largely on the extent that we can recognize ourselves in the story. The story should have elements that are recognizable by the brand’s target group. A part of these elements is whether the viewer can relate to the characters, another part is the setting of the movie.

Social comparison

My research on product placement first started when I somewhat randomly stumbled upon an article on ‘social comparison’. Social comparison is the process of ‘individuals evaluating their own opinions and abilities by comparing themselves to others’. Simply put: as human beings we constantly compare ourselves to others.

The research I encountered was from Mandel, Petrova and Cialdini and in their study, business students read a news article about either a biology student or a business student that had either become successful or unsuccessful; the business major research subjects that read about the successful business student were more positive about their own future and took a preference of luxury products over regular products.

The authors argued that one of the limitations of their research was that the students read a news article, which is not as vivid as a television- or movie fragment would be. This is where I got the inspiration to research the effect of social comparison in a scene with product placement. What influence does us, as viewers, being able to project ourselves into a movie, have on the effect of product placement?

Research on social comparison

Quite a lot of interesting research had already been done on social comparison.

In one study, students who got negative feedback while others around them received positive feedback, felt anxiety and depression.

Other research found that women, who took a math test administered by a competent female, got higher scores on the test than when the test was administered by an incompetent female.

Such conditioning effects in social comparison did not only work in academic related scenes, but also in the product placement of music. Product placement with positively evaluated artists has a positive influence on the attitude towards the brand, while negatively evaluated artists can product negative attitudes towards the brand.

So what does this mean for the product placement of movies? How much do we really compare ourselves to the characters and the setting of their story?

Gender bias

When it comes to product placement we are very biased towards our own gender. Men relate to men; women relate to women. Now this might seem like a rather obvious conclusion but in practice this has quite extensive consequences.

In my research I showed one group of business students a video of a compilation of product placement fragments. One of these fragments was from Sex and the City. During this scene, Carry Bradshaw, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, stands in between rows of shoes, picks one up and says, while pointing at it: “do you know what these are? These are Manolo Blahnik Mary Jane’s!” 85% of the male respondents did not recollect even hearing the name of the brand.

Manolo Blahnik in the movie Sex and the City (2008, New Line Cinema, screen capture)
Manolo Blahnik in the movie Sex and the City (2008, New Line Cinema, screen capture)

If we cannot identify with the situation, we are not truly engaged with the video fragment, meaning we are likely to ignore or oversee products or brand names.

I’m just like that!

Another way we compare ourselves to the characters in movies is based on characteristics. In my research respondents identified with the characters in movies based on personality traits such as ambition, work ethic or style of clothing.

Similarly, characters that displayed characteristics the viewer did not have or did not admire, lead to the fact that the viewer could not identify with that character – making any products situated around that character less interesting.

I could really see myself in that position!

Not only the characteristics of the characters are important; we have to be able to relate to the setting of the movie. We can relate to the setting of a movie if it is in line with our own perception of our own careers and futures.

Another product placement fragment I used in the video compilation that I showed to the respondents was from the movie ‘Limitless’ with Bradley Cooper. Many respondents (remember they were business students) could relate to the business-dinners, business-meetings and high-pressure situations that take place in the movie.

Maserati in Limitless (2011, Relativity Media, screen capture)

It is not only our career that is important; we can also relate to other situations from our own lives. Many respondents could not relate to the characters in the video fragment of ‘’Twilight’, but they could relate to the scene in which she’s getting married. Despite the fact that it is a fantasy movie about vampires, such a scene (and the products in it) made the movie more realistic for them.

How can we still reach people with our products?

There are many who say that television, as a means to reach people is not effective anymore. This is, I think, a fair argument; whenever we watch TV most of us continuously click through the channels, especially in the commercial break.

As journalist and commentator Bob Garfield said: “Marketers are desperate to find ways to reach people. Especially young men, who are far too busy playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’ to notice, say, a 30-second TV commercial.”

The truth is we don’t like watching commercials and we don’t have to.

But we do love watching movies, especially those we can relate to. We want to become a part of those movies as much as possible and to do that, we need the products and brands that come with it.

Like Craig Davis, former Chief Creative Officer at J. Walter Thompson said: “We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in and be what people are interested in.”

Only by creating interesting characters and a setting the viewer can relate to, we can truly engage and interest the viewer, making them more likely to buy the products involved.



Florent GeertsThe author of this article is Florent Geerts. Florent is passionate about product placement and branding. He founded Positively Human, a platform that teaches entrepreneurs how they can build their brand, both online and offline. You can follow Florent on Twitter (@FlorentGeerts), or on Positively Human (

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