Is product placement out of control?

The tactical advantage is questionable when more than 60 brands can share the screen.

The number of product placements in this summer’s blockbuster films is set to soar, but the tactical advantage is questionable when more than 60 brands can share the screen. To be successful marketers must ensure the creative is right and exploit additional complementary content.

This summer is set to be full of blockbuster films, with Jurassic World and Entourage already in the cinema and Disney’s Tomorrowland, a new Mission Impossible and a fifth film in the Terminator franchise all due for release. All the films will inevitably be packed with product placements.

Entourage, based on the HBO TV show, features a whopping 65 brands in its 104 minutes running time, according to analysis by Interbrand’s So has product placement gone too far, or is the screen time a brand gets worth the investment? And if it is, then how do brands maximise the impact?

Beyond the money that is handed over in these deals, the associations formed by brands and the authenticity of the placement are also in question, as is the matter of whether the rising popularity of product placement is causing a dip in its credibility as a marketing channel.

Find out more: Mark Ritson – Star Wars is not the brand partnership you’re looking for

Product placement revenues in the US alone are set to grow 13.2% in 2015 from more than $6bn last year, according to PQ Media, although no other market is close to matching it.

Exploiting additional content

Analysis of films Jurassic World and Avengers: Age of Ultron by Amobee Brand Intelligence suggests that product placement can be effective – at least in creating awareness and engagement – particularly when the brand follows up with additional content.

“Some of these projects can start two to three years before the film releases but it can help tell a brand story if done right.”

George Clement, Chevrolet

Its data shows that ‘digital consumption’ increased for brands associated with these films. The measure estimates audience interest based on how much related content is being viewed across the web, mobile, social, and video channels.

The study shows that between May and June, 56% of shaving foam brand Barbasol’s digital consumption was related to Jurassic World, with 39% of it also mentioning the connection to the original 1993 film Jurassic Park, where it previously appeared. Barbasol has also more than doubled its digital footprint in the past month because of the association.

However, Lego is the brand most associated with the film, not because of product placement but because of the Jurassic World toy line it released. Barbasol and Mercedes-Benz, which both did product placements, come second and third.

Amobee’s statistics also show that between March and June, there was nearly five times as much Avengers-related digital consumption for Gillette as Barbasol achieved through Jurassic World. While Gillette’s Fusion Pro-Glide razor appeared in the latest Avengers film briefly, it is fair to assume most of this consumer activity was prompted by its parody press conference, TV ad and YouTube videos suggesting it had designed razors equipped with the same superpowers as the Avengers characters.

The value of shareable content linked with product placement is being realised by some marketers. General Motor’s Chevrolet brand, for example, filmed interviews with people who own its electric car Volt at a pre-screening of the Tomorrowland film in which it appears, hosted on the brand’s YouTube channel.

General Motor’s Cadillac brand also ran a similar behind-the-scenes video with the cast of Entourage and their thoughts on their ‘co-star’ in the film, the Cadillac Ciel.

“Cinemagoers are emotionally engaged and ready to be told stories,” says Karen Stacey, CEO at Digital Cinema Media. “Brands have an unrivalled opportunity to entertain and connect with them and can showcase their best brand stories alongside legendary film-makers and characters.”

Stacey believes there are several trends that are emerging that will get brands noticed in today’s fragmented media landscape. First, using effective advertising; second, building powerful emotional connections; and third, exploiting branded content
(see viewpoint, below).

Making product placements credible

One sector that seems to have realised bigger potential in product placement in the past year is the automotive industry. It is nothing new, of course, as James Bond fans will know, but cars are increasingly integrated into film storylines and the best branded content around films is getting sleeker and smarter, not only drumming up interest in the film but also synchronising with key campaigns for brands.

Find out more: How Heineken is using James Bond to appeal to the “modern, progressive male”

This year’s releases will see Mercedes race around with dinosaurs in Jurassic World and BMW Minis turn into ghosts from the arcade game Pac Man for Adam Sandler’s new film Pixels – where villains from video games come to destroy earth.

For its tie-in with Tomorrowland, Chevrolet started talking to film-makers in 2013, as the technology and future theme were important to its ‘Find New Roads’ campaign – a concept that was part of the launch of a new global brand positioning.

“It’s great to be able to get in early to work with the film-maker and find that natural connection within the story of the film,” says George Clement, manager of branded entertainment at Chevrolet. “It’s important to get far upstream as you can. Some
of these projects can start two to three years before the film releases but it can help tell a brand story if done right.”

The best branded content around films is getting sleeker and smarter, and is synchronising with key brand campaigns

This does require involvement in the creative process, particularly if the placement is arranged through a partnership model, which the brand prefers. Clement says: “We do have some say in that process but we are also respectful of the creative process.”

Chevrolet has a long history of prominent product placement deals. The Bumblebee character in Transformers is a Chevrolet Camero, for example, while Tomorrowland is also not the first time the brand has teamed up with Disney. The manufacturer’s Corvette, Tahoe, Silverado and Impala models featured in Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Bridget McCarville, branded entertainment manager at Cadillac, is not worried about the 64 other brands its going up against in the Entourage film because it was “fortunate” that Cadillac already featured with the Escalade model in the HBO series.

“We loved that it took place in Los Angeles as LA has a car culture,” says McCarville. “It was a great backdrop for us to feature.”

She adds: “If you want to play in this space, you have to realise that you are telling your brand story through an intermediary. You have to trust their creative process; you hand it over and put it in the world that they are creating so that the story comes through, it connects and it’s organic.”

An ‘organic’ connection also saw Volkswagen make an appearance in the recent film Pitch Perfect 2, about an American a capella singing group, but the influence over the creative content was limited as the deal was not a paid-for partnership.

Universal approached Volkswagen with an opportunity to provide vehicles for the film and equipment for a scene where a rival German a capella group, called Das Sound Machine, perform at an automotive show.

“There is great exposure for the brand,” says Jennifer Clayton, general manager for marketing at Volkswagen. “When we evaluate these types of partnerships we want to make sure it feels like a good fit, is in line with our tonality and see whether there is an opportunity to do more with it.”

However, she says “there is a fine line you walk” in product placement because there are risks in bombarding consumers with products. “If you force your brand into a movie or piece of content where it doesn’t feel right, consumers nine times out of 10 are going to call you out on that,” she adds.

The film Entourage features 65 brands including Cadillac

For Universal, the appeal of the Volkswagen product placement is cost savings on the staging equipment for the auto show scene, vehicles for the film and the flexibility in creative choices as they do not have to treat the brand as a marketing partner because it is not a paid-for deal.

Restrictive TV regulations

The small screen is also getting savvy about the opportunities for brands and TV programming. However, in the UK there are tighter guidelines on what can be done in the TV format than on film, which are set by telecoms regulator Ofcom, including what products can be used, and where and how they can be placed.

Programmes are also required to carry a product placement logo in the form of the letter P, to inform viewers the programme-maker has been paid to include products.

Its value, however, is under scrutiny as only four in 10 adult viewers are aware of product placement in television programmes and only 14% recognise that the ‘P’ symbol indicates product placement, according to a study of 2,074 UK adults by Ofcom.

Product placement in TV is taking a similar road to film, where brands are woven into storylines. ITV, for example, works with brands early in the process to “scope out opportunities on screen” explains Katherine Marlow, senior product placement
and branded content manager at ITV.

She says brands need to “communicate objectives at the earliest stages”, so it can work on finding relevant scenes and environments with production partners.

In the case of its Visa Contactless deal with Coronation Street and Emmerdale, the payments brand briefed ITV in the last quarter of 2014 and the broadcaster was able to agree a deal before filming started in December and transmission in February.

“Under the Ofcom guidelines, all placements have to be editorially justified and cannot be unduly prominent,” says Marlow. “Product placement is the closest a brand can get to [branded TV] content and while the opportunity is hugely exciting, we are always careful about the implementation. Above all, we have to respect the viewers and maintain their trust and engagement.”

Ofcom restrictions would also prevent overcrowding a programme with several brands, so the bun fight between brands on the big screen does not happen on TV in the UK.

However, Marlow adds: “Some shows are big enough to sustain multiple PP deals such as The X Factor, which last year partnered with Skype, Tresemmé and TalkTalk on screen.”

Music is also an increasingly fertile ground for product placement. A report published by The University of Colorado in March found that references to products in lyrics had increased, and that the practice of featuring brands in music videos was becoming more common.

Partnering with Lotus F1 will open up opportunities through TV coverage in emerging markets for Pharrell Williams’s brand I Am Other

As more artists look to create revenue in alternative ways, considering the state of the music industry and the rise of streaming sites eating into recording revenues, it is no wonder that more brands are paying to place products in songs and videos.

Find out more: Why brands need to include music videos in their marketing mix

Musicians are also going the other way, placing their own brands into televised entertainment.

“The truth is it’s about patronage rather than placement and finding two brands that work well together,” says Damon Bryant, executive creative director at Lotus F1 Team and partner at agency Bacchus Creative. “Quite often you will get a brand that will want to sign an artist just because they are big, and they have a big song, but you are paying a lot of money for a song to go on your ad campaign or into a feature film.”

He recently worked with singer and producer Pharrell Williams on placing his brand I Am Other, which incorporates the star’s music, film, television, apparel, tech and multimedia, into Formula 1.

Bryant says Pharrell “sees that TV audience and realises how he can push his music through” and also mentions that the star sees the merchandising partnerships, art projects, soundtracks made for the racetrack and opportunities in emerging markets that watch F1, including Azerbaijan, Russia and Mexico. “That is a really exciting place where you are merging the music world, TV and F1,” he adds.

Bryant’s view on films reflects the same preference for “patronage not placement”.

He says: “You have to engage with it in a beautiful way and make it part of the storytelling. We all wear clothes, wear a watch and drink – make it part of the story and that’s how it makes much more sense. The brands have the money, but don’t just slap them in for the sake of it because people get fed up of that.”

Whether it is film, music or TV, brands that want to tap into the respective audiences of these genres will have to respect the creativity of each, come early to the table to work alongside the creative and create the right interplay between the content on the screen and branded content surrounding it.

For brands looking to move into the content space, they need to have an idea that’s pure and original, while also understanding exactly who will watch it, like it and share it.

Advertisers must ensure they are using the right platforms available to them when launching their content.

While content will always be king, brands need to start being braver, bolder and more disruptive with their approach to ensure they are effectively engaging their target audience.

We believe that the rush to branded content that we are seeing today will see advertisers and agencies challenge themselves to make this content ever more cinematic.

We look at which brands sit in our world. It’s being smart about it. Work out the demographic and find the brand that sits in the same world as you do; that way you can lift each other because your audiences are similar.

Consumers are looking for you to place your products in unique spots.

The key is where do we fit in and how does it work. Today’s consumer is savvy so if a brand can help enhance a story, they will appreciate it.



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