You may think product placement is a relatively new phenomenon – it’s actually been around since the 1920s, if not earlier when it was used in the film The Garage, starring Buster Keaton: ads for Red Crown Gasoline were conspicuously placed on the walls and equipment of the auto shop. In 1927, the Oscar-winning movie Wings featured several shots of Hershey’s candy bars, while in some scenes, characters were even filmed enjoying the treat. By the 1980s, product placement had gained significant traction, and this time Hershey’s paid a million dollars to appear in the movie ET and for associated cross-promotion tie-ins.

But how exactly is product placement used in film, why is it so effective, and what are the more subtle means of going about advertising a product on-screen? We explore further below.

Screen Product Placement

This one’s the most obvious and yet when done properly, can be a masterful way to promote a product. Screen product placement involves the use of the product in either the foreground or the background of the shot, without it being mentioned by name. Michael Bay’s movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction, featured fifty-five products used in this way, making it the current record-holder for most screen product placement used in a film.

Chevrolet Camaro in Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014, Paramount, screen capture)

Using clever video editing techniques is essential to getting this right: linger too long on a product, and it’s going to be too obvious and detract from the film; cut away too quickly, and you run the risk that it won’t be noticed at all.

Script Product Placement

This type of product placement is where the product literally appears in the script – for example, a character might ask for a Budweiser at a bar or mention a certain make of car or brand of clothes.

Plot Placement

Plot placement incorporates the product into the storyline of the film. Sometimes a product is intrinsically tied up with a movie franchise, such as in the case of the link between the James Bond films and Aston Martin cars.

How Effective is Product Placement?

Companies are prepared to spend millions of dollars to get their products ‘placed’ in movies because it has such a drastic effect on sales and increased brand recognition. This type of ‘hidden’ advertising is powerful: when done well, we’re often not aware that product placement has even taken place. It’s been estimated that Hershey’s saw a 65% rise in sales following the release of ET, in which their products prominently featured.

On top of this, most viewers prefer to see ‘branded’ or recognizable products in the films they watch rather than unbranded items, which can disrupt the illusion of reality – even if they’re not fully aware of it.

Most Product Placed Brands in Movies

When it comes to product placement, Apple is the king: it’s appeared 855 times in movies, followed by Facebook at 625 and Google at 468.

In terms of the most well-known? Well, there’s the Nike and Pepsi appearances in Back to the Future, Ray-Bans in Top Gun, and the Ford Mustang in Bullitt. All of these product cameos have now become an integral part of the films in which they appear.

Ford Mustang from Bullitt

Iconic Product Placement

David Fincher’s placement of Starbucks in his 2004 movie Fight Club is iconic. And not just because the film’s sentiment is decidedly anti-materialistic. In an interview, Fincher once claimed that there’s a Starbucks cup in every single frame of the movie – a suitably mischievous sleight of hand, given – for those that remember – Pitt’s prior role as a movie screen projectionist in the film, and his own attempts at subliminal messaging…

Fincher’s statement led to many attempts to track down each of these Starbucks cups – have a look on Tumblr, and you’ll find a page called fightclubstarbucks, where one user is having a go at doing just that.

Audi has had an interesting and symbiotic product placement relationship with the Iron Man films; just as, throughout the film’s sequels, Tony Stark’s suit gets more highly advanced, so do the cars he drives – Audis, all.

And finally, we have to mention the satirical placement of products in Wayne’s World: characters regularly break the fourth wall by directly engaging with the viewer to blatantly promote a product. While this was intended to be a riff on the ‘selling-out’ message of the film, it’s worth remembering the saying: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Making Product Placement Work for Your Small Business

You may not be able to afford to have your product placed in a major film, but if you’re a small business, there are plenty of other ways to make product placement work for you – and your budget!

Leverage social media sites like Facebook and Instagram: make contact with influencers and other content creators to explore the possibility of having your product placed in their next videos. This kind of exposure can be both a cost-effective and affordable way to drive up sales and get your brand noticed. And, in time, maybe you’ll even see your own product being enjoyed by the main character in a Hollywood blockbuster!

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