Patent place

Product placement is becoming a key strand in many companies’ marketing strategies – especially in the US – as big brand owners begin to recognise its effectiveness. But some deals are coming unstuck – with spectacular results.

Mars will spend 2m in the UK to reinforce its product placement deal in the new Mr Bean film. An on-pack promotion to 11 million consumers will be supported by a pan-European 30-second ad designed to sell M&M’s and other Mars brands to the target 12 to 24-year-old age group. In contrast, Reebok is spending an untold fortune suing Tristar Pictures for $110m (72m), alleging that the film company broke a product placement deal for the film Jerry Maguire, released in the UK last week.

So while Rowan Atkinson’s contorted face will appear across Europe for the two-year life of the film, Bean – The Ultimate Disaster Movie, from cinema to video release and first TV rights, Reebok could spend a similar length of time in a US court. Its involvement in the story of a sports promoter best remembered for a legal wrangle detracting rather than adding to its brand.

These two examples, while different in their scope, provide a glimpse of the potential highs and lows of product placement. It is a cynical scenario, where companies sneak their washing powder, car or computer onto a screen through the back door. But it is growing in importance, especially within the film industry, and especially in the US where the money from such deals either pays for, or makes a substantial contribution to, the global marketing of a film.

The M&M’s/Mr Bean deal was negotiated through the brand’s London ad agency Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO. It is the only company involved in product placement in the film and has a two-year deal with Atkinson, privately angering Barclaycard which has had an exclusive advertising contract with the comedian since 1991 (MW March 7).

“This is a great example of how marketing global brands means having to think outside the traditional advertising box,” argues Julian Ingram, BBDO’s European director on the Mars business. “The added value that Rowan Atkinson’s character brings to M&M’s is substantial, and the value M&M’s can bring to the support package for the film is equally important.”

M&M’s UK brand manager Vanessa Andrews says the product is an integral part of the storyline and so the placement does not look like a placement. Crucially the Mr Bean link is planned as part of M&M’s overall celebrities campaign, which has already featured designer Jean Paul Gaultier and footballer Ruud Gullit.

“Mars is always being approached with opportunities like this,” says Andrews, “but they rarely tick all the boxes. This works for both sides – it adds to the brand and to the film. This is going to be our big event of the summer.”

At the top end of the spectrum, placement deals are large and it is a game for mature advertisers. But as the Reebok example shows, it is a type of marketing where control is difficult.

The certainties a company relies on when its brand is advertised by traditional means – that everyone involved in the project is working for it – disappear with product placement in film or TV projects. Here, the imperative is to make commercial entertainment; the brand positioning is of secondary importance to the story telling.

Reebok appears to have broken a golden rule. When a company first commits to a film, a goodwill investment of between 3,000 and 7,000 – effectively a holding deposit – is paid to show that the company is interested in the product.

But it is only when a film is complete, that a brand throws its weight behind the movie, almost always in marketing support. Rarely, if ever, does money change hands to place a product in a shot. And only when companies are happy with the finished product is any serious outlay made.

But Reebok spent 1m providing products and technical assistance to Jerry Maguire. The script included a line saying “Fuck Reebok” before finally including an uplifting commercial about the sports company towards the end of the film.

The company paid for a one-off uplifting ad, produced by its advertising agency Leo Burnett, to be included in the film. However weeks before the film’s final edit, Tristar executives told the company that the direction of the film had changed and the ad was cut.

The pair appear in court in the first week in May, where Tristar will contest the action.

This illustrates the difficulty of this form of advertising. When it works, it can be a fairly cheap way of getting your brand worldwide awareness.

But when it does not, there is the danger that you will not be noticed at all or, worse still, your brand will come out looking bad.

John Barnard, president of the Entertainment Marketing Association, the product placement industry trade body, thinks that Reebok has nobody to blame but itself for its current predicament. “If Reebok used an agency, it slipped up. And if it handled the deal itself then it was naive,” he says.

Barnard says for a deal as large and involved as the 35m Jerry Maguire movie, signing the contract is only the start of the work for a brand not the end. A script for a major movie goes through 20 or more major changes, and at every turn the company must ensure that it is kept aware and can be involved in these changes.

When a film starts shooting, major companies like Coca-Cola or Anheuser-Busch make sure they have a representative on the set during the shooting of scenes where the product appears.

In post-production, that same representative will push to see as many of the rough cuts as possible, to see how the brand is being treated as the film progresses. The aim is not to get the sort of surprise Reebok executives got when they sat down at a private screening to see that their brand had got the short end of the stick.

Yet Reebok denies naivety on its part. A spokesman for the company says: “In this particular deal, solid agreements were made. We delivered on all aspects of the deal – Tristar did not.”

But it could be argued that in getting involved in the deal, Reebok broke a second golden rule. The film originally included reference to Nike, but when Reebok’s product placement agency Davey Jones & Associates discovered this it took it to its client.

Reebok agreed with the plan to get into the film, and convinced Tristar to drop Nike in favour of itself. Executives at the company were so excited about the movie that they personally oversaw the project. It is a decision now causing much mirth at Nike, and it has to be asked whether Reebok jumped into the deal too quickly.

From Tristar’s point of view, the deal had an obvious attraction. Product placement cash is now crucial to major movies. Gordon Arnell, marketing director at Eon Productions which produces the Bond films, explains that 1995’s Goldeneye cost about 35m to make and the same again to market globally.

Striking a deal with BMW, Omega, Smirnoff, Bollinger, and Perrier generated an income of 35m – enough to pay for the global marketing of the film in 50 countries. BMW alone paid 17m to ensure its sports car, the Z3, was the Bond car for that film.

Arnell says: “This kind of deal is only appropriate with very high profile pictures. And there are more of those around at the moment, so the sector is growing. What these deals give us are hundreds of other outlets to promote the film around the globe. Bond images are seen on promotional packs in shops everywhere, and that is advertising that we do not pay for.”

Arnell adds that the crucial car deal for the next Bond film is currently being negotiated and BMW is just one of a number of interested players. A decision is expected within a month.

Like most companies getting involved in these deals, Apple Computer has a small team based in Los Angeles to broker agreements. Last year, its laptop machines had high-profile appearances in blockbusters like Mission Impossible and Independence Day. It will also feature in Batman & Robin, which is released later this year.

Apple UK marketing services manager Neil Holland says: “First and foremost this is a branding exercise for us. We have a brand position that is quite distinct from other computer companies and we want to keep that up. Although we are not very proactive in this area, in the past the deals we have got involved in have worked.”

Advertising support around the video launch of Independence Day, including clips from the film showing the laptop saving the world with the help of Jeff Goldblum, illustrate the way the movie link can be exploited by a company.

When done struck, the deals can kick-start brands. Sales of Ray Ban sunglasses shot up in the year after Tom Cruise and his co-stars wore them in Top Gun. The same happened when Reece’s Pieces chocolate was laid down for ET to pick up in the Spielberg movie.

However, the majority of deals are not quite so high profile. About 80 per cent of deals are done free. The company provides the product, or gives its service simply to see it on screen.

In the UK, much of the product placement activity takes place on TV rather than film. It is difficult to put a figure on the size of the market as it is very much a cottage industry, but estimates value it at about 10m.

But TV is heavily regulated, in contrast to film where there are no rules at all. The BBC’s Producer’s Guidelines says: “A product or service must never be included in sound or vision in return for cash, services or any kind.” The BBC says it tries to cut out blatant product placement scenes from the movies it airs.

As regards commercial TV the Independent Television Commission (ITC) does not explicitly ban product placement but decrees that: “No undue prominence must be given in any programme to a commercial product or service.”

Programme makers and sponsors have constantly tested how far they can push the phrase “undue prominence”. The most famous example was in 1994 when the ITC fined Granada 500,000 after its This Morning show repeatedly broke the code by giving prominence to a number of brands and products, including She magazine, Safeway, Calvin Klein, The Sunday Express, Heinz, and Baxter’s.

Last year, Grampian had complaints upheld against it for the prominence of the jeweller H Samuel and Playtex’s Wonderbra in an awards ceremony in screened. Live TV has also fallen foul of the code.

The ITC is known to be on the verge of relaxing its rules on sponsored programming, and allowing the sponsors more of a role in programming. This will almost certainly put pressure on broadcasters to let products creep into the shot.

An ITC spokeswoman says: “This is not something that the public is comfortable with. If we don’t think something is in the public interest then we won’t allow it.”

But as Barnard observes, when commenting on Goldeneye, it is already here: “All the way through that film I could not help feeling that I was watching an advertisement. I mean the scene where Bond crashes through a Perrier truck was all a bit obvious.”

The Reebok case opens in the first week of May. Bean – The Ultimate Disaster Movie follows in August. But it is all a far cry from the origins of the industry which, Barnard says, dates back to 1934 with It Happened One Night, when Clarke Gable had his shirt ripped off to reveal a vestless chest.

Sales of vests plummeted, and slowly companies and agents realised the power movies had in affecting consumers. But it is only now, 60 years on, that the real power is dawning on brand owners.

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