Gears shift, engines rumble, and tires screech as bank robbers dodge in and out of traffic. Clinging to the edge of your seat, heart pumping, mind racing, your eyes stare into the vibrant screen. You may recognize the cars because they’re small and nimble with racing stripes cutting down the center of their bodies … of course, they are driving Mini Coopers. Not only are you fully invested into the film’s plot line, having developed an attachment to the characters and narrative, but having identified with them you want to do what they do, you want to drive as fast and skilled as they can. Taking full advantage of this phenomenon, the Mini Cooper Brand ignited in 2003, increasing sales by nearly 22% with their cars appearing front and center in the remake of The Italian Job.
It is hard to say exactly what role product placement had in making the Mini Cooper one of the most iconic British automobiles, but you definitely cannot talk about the success of the last decade plus with the Mini Cooper and not mention the cars appearance in The Italian Job. Product placement appears in nearly every film to some degree, whether it is in-your-face like in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle – where the Brand is right there in the movie title – or when it is subtler like Tom Cruise wearing Ray-Bans in Risky Business and Top Gun. Seeing brands in their favorite films promotes action like no other form of promotion. When people pass an advertisement on the side of the road, they only see the information with their eyes. It is much more difficult to develop any type of actionable emotion towards the product when it’s in a two-dimensional form. It’s the emotional connection that viewers form with the characters and situations provided by a narrative that these brands are harnessing to make the placement of their products and effective tool.
This emotional connection is also what makes product placement difficult, it is all about finding a storyline that aligns with your Brand and reaches your Brand’s target audience. One of the most iconic movie scenes made by product placement is in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. We watch a young boy carefully lays out a trail of Reese’s Pieces throughout the woods to lure the alien. At the time, Hershey’s wanted a creative and impactful way of growing awareness of their new Reese’s product among their target audience of 7-18 years old, which made E.T. the perfect platform. The deal Hershey made with universal Studios didn’t having them paying at all, instead, they promoted the movie with around $1 million worth of advertising in exchange for their treats being the one to lure out E.T. The Reese’s Brand was seen by millions of movie viewers and within two weeks of the film being released, Reese’s sales tripled.
The best brands are built as purposeful tools, designed to direct and dictate all the ways that product will speak to and interact with the world. Product placement can be a powerful weapon to break through the “noise,” but if the Brand behind the placement isn’t clear, consistent, and compelling then even selecting placement opportunities becomes nothing more than an awkward exercise in fitting a square peg in a round hole. If the Brand is dynamic and strong, then the best opportunities to strategically place it in film and television become almost obvious.