A History of Product Placement in Film and Television
A History of Product Placement in Film and Television Peter Rush Product placement in the marketing world has become more and more evident in the past few decades. More specifically, product placement in the movie industry has been one of the most successful ways to advertise products. Oftentimes, products are associated with a film, or vice versa. Such is the case with Reese’s Pieces candies and Stephen Spielberg’s film, “E. T”. While it is a very expensive way of companies to advertise their brands, it is one that pays off immensely if executed properly.
Although it seems as if product placement in film and television is a relatively new way of marketing products to the public, it has been around as early as the late 1800’s. On December 28, 1895, pioneering French filmmakers Auguste and Louis Lumiere exhibited their films in the basement of a Paris cafe to the first paying audience for projected motion pictures. In developing their “Cinematograph,” a machine that combined a camera, processor, and projector into a single unit, the Lumiere brothers had also, in effect, invented the motion picture audience.
The running time of a Lumiere film was limited by the amount of film that their Cinematograph could hold, which was about 50-60 seconds. The content was often moments, supposedly, of real life: a train arriving at a station, pedestrians walking on a city street. But many of their films were staged, including a very early one featuring a performance by Frank Claire, the father-in-law to both the Lumiere brothers. Claire owned a brewery in Lyons, and in the film, “The Card Game” (Lumiere, 1896); he carefully pours a bottle of his beer for two companions.
If the bottle had a label, it was not visible, but in this film the initial steps toward the combination of film and commerce are evident. Within 6 months the first examples of product placement would be filmed. In the spring of 1896, the Lumiere brothers entered into a distribution and production arrangement with Francois-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, a Swiss businessman who was also a European distributor and promoter for the U. K. soap manufacturer Lever Brothers (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006).
For the Lumiere brothers, Lavanchy-Clarke would show films in Switzerland as well as film Swiss-located motion pictures for distribution in Europe and the United States. For Lever Brothers, Lavanchy-Clarke publicized their leading product, Sunlight Soap (Lavanchy-Clarke, 1922). It was this connection between Lavanchy-Clarke, Lever Brothers, and the Lumieres that resulted in the first product placements in motion pictures. In May 1896, in the yard of the Geneva home of Lavanchy-Clarke, Cinematographer operator Alexandre Promio shot a film of two women hand-washing tubs of laundry (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006).
Placed notably in front of the tubs were two cases of Lever Brothers soap, one with the French branding “Sunlight Savon,” the other with the German “Sunlight Seife. ” The following month, the film, given the English title, “Washing Day” in Switzerland (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006), was shown in New York at Keith’s Union Square Theatre, along with shots of European trains, French parades, and various skits. Another contributor to product placement’s beginnings which included the interconnection of film and marketing was none other than Thomas Edison.
Edison was the first to turn product placement into an ongoing business that provided benefits of reducing out-of-pocket production costs while providing promotional services for customers of his industrial business (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006). One of Edison’s films, the 1905 “Streetcar Chivalry” takes place in a commuter train car plastered with posters for Edison’s products such as phonographs (Streetcar Chivalry, 1905). Some Edison films integrated advertising messages that were more similar to commercials than product placements.
For example, in July 1897, his Black Maria studio was the setting for perhaps the first advertising film: 50 seconds of men smoking in front of an Admiral Cigarettes billboard (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006). But although some of the Edison films were obvious offers of products and services, product placements as subtle efforts to influence audience attitude and behavior became a specialty of Edison’s. His catalog listed hundreds of travelogues, such as trips to the Far West, Niagara Falls, and Hawaii, along with dozens of railroad films. The business of product placement had begun.
In the United States, cinematic art and business intertwined in the 1910s and 1920s as manufacturers and government-distributed advertising films that combined drama and commerce to the small-town circuit. Producers of these films included International Harvester, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, and the YMCA. From 1914 to 1921, Ford Motor Company created a series of newsreels titled Ford Animated Weekly and Ford Educational Weekly. A typical serial included Model T races and news footage that sometimes incorporated Henry Ford meeting with government officials.
These advertising films were distributed at low cost to exhibitors and found an early approval in small towns, with Ford claiming a viewership of 3 million per week (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006). Not only did the product placement within the movie help to reimburse both parties of the agreement, but the American films initiated a worldwide trade in American products as well. For example, a citizen of a foreign country would see the American actors use American products on the silver screen, and soon enough, the foreign movie-goer purchased the product and boosted the American economy through the film industry.
Although the earliest product placements, such as those in the Edison films, were most often a method of reducing the cost of production, a second motivation saw increased use beginning in the 1920s: cooperative promotional arrangements between outside manufacturers and movie makers, in which on-screen product appearances or star endorsements were traded for advertising and promotions paid by the manufacturer.
It was seen as a winning arrangement for both parties, as the motion picture industry benefitted from increased ticket sales due to enhanced advertising for their pictures while manufacturers obtained screen exposure for their products and a marketing edge by connecting their products to celebrities (Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 2006). These were called tie-ups. Typically, a tie-up would result in the national manufacturer creating ads that featured the product and the motion picture as well as window displays for local distributors of the product.
The local movie theater operators would then work with the local distributor to create in-theater promotions for both the product and the movie. This new phenomenon would catch on like wild fire in the film industry. One of the most popular and successful forms of tie-ups or product placement in film is showcased in Stephen Spielberg’s motion picture film, “E. T”. Visionary director, Stephen Spielberg has always been a step ahead, and his 1982 alien film “E. T” blazed the trail for modern day product placement.
The film was to have a scene where a boy coaxes an abandoned alien into his clutches by use of leaving a trail of candy on the ground. But not just any candy. The choice was made months prior to production when Spielberg looked for a partnership with a candy company that would promise promotion for his film. The very popular M&M’s were selected, but the suits at Mars, Inc. refused to have their treats associated with a creature whose appearance may not appeal to the American public (Steinbrunner, 2008).
However, the little alien creature didn’t bother the people at Hershey, who were hoping to bolster their Reese’s Pieces line. An agreement was made to produce a million dollars’ worth of advertisements for the film, and they even placed E. T. ‘s face on the candy’s packaging. Although in the film, there is no mention of the product’s name, customers had no trouble identifying the little orange, yellow, and brown treats as proven by a 65% spike in Reese’s Pieces sales after the movie was shown in theaters (Steinbrunner, 2008).
Another slightly skewed version of product placement that is becoming more evident and successful recently, is cross-promotion. In 2007, “The Simpsons Movie” was hitting the big screen, and marketing for the film had been planned out almost perfectly. 7-Eleven Inc. turned a dozen stores into Kwik-E-Marts, the fictional convenience drug stores of “The Simpsons” in a brilliant marketing move (MSNBC, 2007). 7-Eleven offered fictional products shown in “The Simpsons” and brought them to life for fans of the show and movie for purchase in the stores.
The “Kwik-E-Mart” promotion turned out to be a huge success for 7-Eleven, with fans driving as far as hundreds of miles to buy the special themed merchandise. It also resulted in a 30% increase in profits for the converted 7-Elevens (MSNBC, 2007). One of the big pros for product placement in film and television, is it is a strong substitute to the deteriorating effectiveness of the 30-second commercial spot. More importantly, reality TV has become a hot-spot for massive amount of obvious product placement (Munger, 2009).
Shows such as, “The Apprentice” and more specifically MTV produced shows are displaying product placement in almost every medium. It’s nearly impossible to turn on the MTV channel and see an actor on “The Real World” not holding a Coke in their hand. As a result, the value of placements on popular shows such as these has exploded into the millions of dollars per placement. Also fueling the growth of television product placements has been the debut of niche instructional cable networks like Food, The Learning Channel and Outdoor, where house, home and garden marketers are pitching there wares (Hanlon, 2005).