Product Placement: Creatively Rich, Yet Discreet

By Leah Hochbaum

The actress who plays Leonardo DiCaprio's mother serves Sara Lee cake to detectives in DreamWorks' Catch Me if You Can. Sam Rockwell is punched out in a bar beneath a Miller's beer sign in Chuck Barris' Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Denzel Washington offers Derek Luke some Lay's potato chips during a therapy session in Antwone Fisher. Matt Damon makes a desperate call on his Panasonic cell phone in Universal's The Bourne Identity.

Viewers may have noticed that, whereas in the past, movie and television characters drank generic cola and bit into any old, non-specific candy bar, they now chug Coke by the barrel and chomp down regularly on peanut buttery Butterfingers. Studios are banking that viewers are paying attention, and are therefore littering the big and small screens with enough products to fill the Hollywood hills and then some. The reason? Ancillary revenue sources, maximization of captive audiences, brand extension opportunities. In other words: money!

Product placement, as this practice is called, is nothing new. Studios and ad agencies have been working together for years to find ways to promote everything from spaghetti sauces to luxury cars in movies and TV shows. What is new, however, is the absolute ubiquitousness of this procedure nowadays. For the studios, product placement plays a part almost as important as a film protagonist's salary.

"In one million households [equipped] with a TiVo device, a 30-second commercial is losing its value," said Jeff Greenfield, vice president of sales at 1st Approach, a firm that specializes in strategic media solutions and has worked on campaigns for Forest Laboratories, Hershey Foods, Krispy Kreme and Timbuk2. "Companies are now spending more money on sponsorship than on [traditional] TV advertising."

With viewers' thumbs perpetually poised over the remote control button, companies have begun to realize that they get less bang for their advertising buck when they invest in a spot audiences are more than likely not even going to watch. And with this new awareness came an explosion in the popularity of product placement, a freakish hybrid of celebrity endorsement and run-of-the-mill advertisement in which film and TV viewers get to see their favorite character take a swig from a Pepsi can with a logo that is fully visible - not covered by a thumb or turned away from the camera, a ploy used for decades when producers were reluctant to give a product a free plug.

"Several times we have featured other products and/or retail partners in programs that we produce to promote our own products," said Kevin Harrington, CEO of Reliant Interactive Media Corp., an ad agency that markets most of its products through infomercials and short-form spots, putting the firm in the position of being both advertiser and program producer. "One specific example is on a show we produced for the Flavorwave Oven. In order to boost sales we offered to customers certificates from Hormel meats. And we cooked with Hormel products in the show with Hormel packaging prominent in the scene."

When One World Productions' Vince Scarza directed Spring Break Reunion, an homage to the stars of yesteryear featuring Frankie Avalon and Connie Stevens, the flick had a multitude of products incorporated into it. "Coppertone suntan lotion was involved in product placement. Broward County [where the movie was shot] also put in money because it wanted to promote the area," said Scarza. "The producers approached all kinds of corporate sponsors because it was on the beach and there was lots to do."

But while some argue that this practice lends an element of realism to these Tinseltown fantasies ("Tom Hanks working for Fed Ex in Castaway made sense thematically," said Scarza), others contend that the blatant commercialism is killing an art form that is already too commercial. And with rumors circulating that Survivor producer extraordinaire Mark Burnett is planning a new variety show that will air sans commercials, with only product placement to support it, the issue of whether or not this custom detracts from a program's integrity is once again becoming the topic du jour around Hollywood.

"[The product placement on] American Idol was incredibly distracting," said Greenfield, referring to the plethora of car ads that were featured on Fox's hit. He does, however, admit that "it's ridiculous not to have real products in a film." Harrington agrees. "It adds to the realism if the product is seen in a natural way. If the inclusion of any product feels forced or out of place, then I feel that viewers find the placement distracting," he said.