The Evolution of Product Placement in TV and Film: How Smart Brands Get Leverage

By the Editors

In the classic 90s TV show “The X-Files,” the most frightening character was Cigarette Smoking Man, a shadowy man, whose name we never really learned, who was at the center of every conspiracy, lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings. He was also constantly smoking, as his name implied. He always had a pack of his trusted Morleys and sometimes the characters even knew “He was just here!” because of the familiar empty red pack. For some TV fans, Morleys was a recognizable brand, even if it wasn’t real. The brand has been featured on shows from “The Twilight Zone” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, if you didn’t pay much attention to cigarettes in real life, you would have just assumed they were real. They aren’t, though—they are a brand made entirely for TV, a concept that has all but disappeared in the last decade with the rise of product placement.

Morley wasn’t the only made-for-TV brand (think Acme), but it was the last of the great ones. Product placement is one of the most important streams of revenue for many shows. While the concept isn’t new and has always been around in movies (consider how it was brilliantly spoofed as far back as “Wayne’s World”), it’s presence on television is. For brands looking to establish an identity, product placement can even be more effective than traditional commercials. Market research can help you decide the right shows in which to make an appearance and how it will work. With the right moves, your brand can be like Cigarette Smoking Man—always there, in control, but never front and center.

Why Product Placement Is So Prevalent

Product placement has an interesting role in our culture. Many people say they resent it and feel that it can be distracting during a viewing experience, but the method clearly works for brands. By 2014, product placement was a nearly $10 billion dollar industry. This figure is expected to double by 2020. The main reason for this, of course, is that in the era of streaming, binge-watching and DVR, traditional commercials are becoming less effective. People are able to avoid them altogether, reinforced by the launch of Tivo Bolt. While this makes viewers happy, it is bad news for shows, who rely on ad revenue in order to be produced (except, of course, for subscription channels, but they also turn to placement to defray costs).

There is another reason why product placement is becoming more commonplace and acceptable, however: TV viewers demand a sense of realism. Even in big shows that are over-the-top, viewers want them to be happening in the real world. Sophisticated viewers can spot absurdities right away. If a character walks into a bar and says, “Give me a Corona,” you might roll your eyes for a second at the product placement. However, if the same character walks into the same bar and says, “Give me a beer,” and the bartender just hands her a bottle, you’d think: “What kind of bar does that? Every bartender would ask what kind of beer.” It is actually more distracting to be vague.

So now we have characters in film and television drinking Coke, talking on their iPhones and playing X-Box. The thing is that shows don’t need approval to do this. Showrunners who want to place their characters in the real world will do so anyway. Knowing this, many brands approach studios and networks and the deals filter down into the shows.

How Product Placement Can Work for Your Brand

There are a couple steps to identify if product placement is right for your brand:

  • Be clear on what you want your brand identity to convey. Appearing on a TV show brings with it a host of cultural signifiers, so be sure that you know the direction you want to go. If not, you can be dragged along for the ride.
  • Be sure of what the show is. If you are a newer product trying to establish an identity, it is a good idea to choose your TV shows wisely. Consider the role of Manolo Blahnik in “Sex and the City;” this was a perfect match of aspirational brand identity and show. People wanted to be Carrie, Charlotte, Samantha or Miranda. The characters wanted to wear those shoes. Therefore, everyone wanted to wear those shoes. However, no one wanted to drive an Aztec because Walter White did in Breaking Bad. Indeed, in the show, that car was the perfect symbol of his suburban desperation. Sometimes viewers don’t want to associate with negative mindsets.
  • That said, don’t be afraid to be out there. Going edgy can be great for a brand. There is product placement on gory, hugely-rated hits like “The Walking Dead,” as well as vulgar cult shows like “Always Sunny In Philadelphia.” Sometimes it pays to not shy away from controversy.
  • Allow your brand to convey a sense of humor. In Always Sunny, which features truly detestable characters, Mac and Dennis are having a drunken business meeting in a Dave and Busters. Mac couldn’t figure out how the loyalty card worked and Dennis declared, “If you’re looking for a finer steak in an arcade setting, you’re (bleep) out of luck!” They were making fun of Dave and Busters and at product placement in general, but it was also great coverage for the chain. It allowed itself to be made fun of, be in on the joke, and therefore acquire some cool cred.

The point of product placement isn’t just about being noticed. It is also being associated with specific characters, a show, or a particular vibe. It’s doubtful someone saw Always Sunny and had a desire to be like the reprehensible characters. However, Dave and Busters, through the characters, allowed itself to be presented as a cool place that is aware of its slight ridiculousness, but is still tons of fun. Many brands could appreciate this.

Quality market research here can help you on a few fronts:

  • Help you become aware of what people think of your brand
  • Allow you see what the market is looking for in terms of brand identity
  • Help you consider how identifying yourself with certain shows (or genres) can help

Product placement is, more than streaming or dragons, the big development in television. We’re currently in a Golden Age for creators and viewers, but also for smart brands. Utilizing market research to help identify the segment you want to target will put you in the hands of great characters and within sight of millions.