AMERICA: Tonight’s main feature – a two-hour cigarette ad

As consumers – with the help of technology – skip the ads, more brands are infiltrating the programmes to get their message across, says Polly Devaney

They may be on opposite sides of the country, but the film studios of Los Angeles and the advertisers’ hub on Madison Avenue in New York seem to be getting closer and closer all the time. There has always been flirtation between film-makers and advertisers, but recently the couple are looking cosier than ever.

Last week, not long after the movie people had left, the advertisers took over Cannes for their version of the Oscars. Coincidentally, the week also saw the US release of the latest Spielberg movie, Minority Report, which stars a host of big-name brands as well as Tom Cruise. Cruise plays a police officer in a futuristic world where crimes can be detected before they have been committed.

Spielberg has used futuristic advertising technology with brands that a global audience will recognise. In one scene, as Cruise’s character runs towards a subway, a barrage of interactive billboards, which all recognise his face and know his name, call out their selling messages to him. “John Anderton, you look like you could use a Guinness,” says one billboard. He gets splashed when driving past an interactive billboard advertising Pepsi water brand Aquafina. Nokia has a strong presence in the movie, with a split screen showing people using a phone with a video, and a transparent Nokia logo floating through the screen.

Spielberg apparently felt that having real-world brands would make the film feel more real to the audience – nor would it have harmed the film’s balance sheet, as these kind of placements are unlikely to come cheap. The fees charged by movie producers for placing brand-name products in movies range from $10,000 (£6,600) to $1m (£660,000). Disney’s Buena Vista Distribution offered to place brand-name products in Mr Destiny for $20,000 (£13,000) to $60,000 (£40,000), depending on how the product was to be shown – the highest figure is payable if the star actually uses the product. Brands pay less if their product merely appears on screen.

Product placement – or “product integration” as some marketers now prefer to call it – is nothing new. It picked up momentum when Reese’s Pieces were portrayed as the favourite food of ET. New technology means product placement is getting more sophisticated all the time. Law and Order, the hugely popular US drama, has just received permission to insert branded messages into re-runs of the show. So a coffee mug on a desk – blank in the original series – could have a Starbucks logo on it in the repeats. There is talk of digital images being used, so that brands shown in film and on television could vary from region to region.

For advertisers, many product-placement deals are driven by the fear that 30-second ads are becoming obsolete as consumers skip them with the latest technology. Being part of the actual programme could be the only way to get to consumers while they are watching TV. A recent New Yorker article about people watching the Oscars noted that many of them used TiVo to record it and delete the ads, rather than actually watching it live. Marketers are also attracted by the fact that a film placement has a long – and global – lifespan as it moves from cinema to video to cable and satellite and then to terrestrial TV.

Although in some cases companies may work with film producers to design and create specific, often futuristic products, the benefit for the programme-makers and film producers is primarily financial. However, some critics of the practice argue that product placement can damage the consumer relationship with both the brand and the entertainment product, cheapening both products. Those in the other camp claim that much product placement is not primarily about the marketing message, but about reflecting brand-soaked real life.

Tobacco has always been a contentious sub-issue in this arena. Many anti-smoking groups claim that smoking is too prevalent in films. The debate really started in 1985, when a scene in Superman III showed the hero being crushed by a truck – a truck with a huge tobacco ad on the side of it. The move was criticised by many, as Superman III was a family film. A study last year by The Lancet noted that 21 of the 25 highest-grossing movies between 1988 and 1997 featured characters smoking and seven of them featured distinct tobacco branding. Many people feel this sends mixed messages to children, with the likes of “heroic” Sylvester Stallone being shown defusing a bomb with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth – others say that it is simply a reflection of real life, where some people do smoke.

The car industry has certainly got used to fighting it out to get products showcased in films aimed at its target market. James Bond films have always been a major battleground for car makers to showcase their latest creations, with Aston Martin, Lotus and BMW all benefiting from the Bond association. BMW in North America went one step further into the film world recently by creating its own film company, bmwfilms.com. The company appointed top film directors, including Guy Ritchie, to direct a short car-chase film each. The films were put online for viewing. This marketing exercise was aimed as much at future BMW drivers as current likely buyers. There is certainly no doubt that many advertisers believe film is the place to be – even if it means going to the expense of making their own.

It is clear that if commercial messages are to be blended into entertainment content, it has to be done well to avoid damaging the brand of either participant. Advertisers are certainly keener than ever to promote their film placements. Nokia, for instance, is rumoured to have spent up to $7m (£4.6m) on media to promote its tie-in with Spielberg’s futuristic offering, using scenes from the movie in a current ad. With more and more companies eager to exploit the potential of this medium, it looks as if the relationship between film-makers and advertisers is going to be a long-term and very expensive affair.

Polly Devaney is a former Unilever executive now working as a freelance business writer

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