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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Product placement is a type of advertising where commercial products are included in scenes from films or television shows, as well as in video games, music videos, and books. Firms pay to have their products displayed in this way, and it helps producers offset production costs. It can include the product itself, a favorable mention, or a brand’s logo.

A typical example might be a scene in a television series where the characters are sitting at the breakfast table with several products such as a packet of cereal, a milk product and a fruit juice all prominently displayed on the table with labels facing the camera. People see the stars of their favorite shows eating a particular cereal or driving a certain car and will associate the product with those stars. This makes people go and buy these same products, so they can connect with or be like the stars. Sales can be boosted significantly. For example, the 1982 film “ET the Extra-Terrestrial” boosted sales of candy bar Reese’s Pieces by eighty percent. Research similar to ad tracking is carried out to test recall rates for products people saw in a movie or television show.

Product placement has been around since at least the 1940s. The earliest example is perhaps in the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, where a boy who wanted to be an explorer clutches a copy of National Geographic. Product placement in episodic television series in the 1940s and 1950s by soap companies is how these types of programs came to be known as “soap operas”.

One of the products most commonly used in product placement is motor vehicles, such as the use of Fords in “The X-Files”. The James Bond film “The Man with the Golden Gun” used AMC cars, including in Thailand where these cars aren’t available, and they didn’t even change the steering wheel to the side used in that country. Other Bond movies have used Fords, BMWs and of course Aston Martins. Three characters in “Desperate Housewives” drive Nissans. The car used in 1960s sitcom “Mr. Ed” was a Studebaker. In all these shows, the car companies paid large sums for product placement.

There are many variations of product placement:

– Brand integration is where the product becomes an integral part of a movie or television show, for example, where a character works for an advertising agency, and its campaign for a particular product becomes an integral part of the show.

– Placement can include advertisements for a product, for example, a Pepsi ad on a billboard seen from a car or during a night time street scene. This is sometimes called advertisement placement.

– Product placement might be spoofed in comedies, for example, the film “Kung Pow! Enter the Fist” featured an out of place Taco Bell. In “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”, a Wal-Mart popped up in the desert.

– An actual television advertisement appeared in a movie for the first time in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” in 2006.

– Fictional product placement is where a product is invented. Quentin Tarantino’s Red Apple Cigarettes is a good example. Sometimes a fictional product placement becomes a real product, such as Buzz Cola in “The Simpsons”.

– Paid product placement doesn’t always treat a product well, for example, where there is a break-in to a store used on the show, or a car crash involving a placed car.

– Sometimes placements can include a firm lending items such as props, cars or clothes for various scenes, or free products such as a mobile phone for actors and producers/directors.

Just because a firm’s products are used on television or in movies, this doesn’t always mean it’s product placement, for example, Apple’s products often appear in shows as they look better than those of their competitors. In an odd twist, sitcom “30 Rock” had a General Electric oven on the show. Product placement was denied but GE advertised the oven during commercial breaks to take advantage of its appearance on the program.

Product placement is escalating in on-line videos and in video games. There is even product placement in books, such as a brand name being mentioned in the story. A new trend is virtual product placement, where product placement is switchable thanks to computer graphics.

The product placement industry was worth $3.1 billion worldwide in 2006 and was forecast to rise to $5.6 billion in 2010, according to PQ media in 2007. This was beaten in 2009, during the great recession, when $6.25 billion was spent. This jumped to $8.25 billion in 2012. A factor driving the growth is VCRs and people’s habit of fast forwarding the commercials. While there has been a shift to product placement, conventional advertising is safe, with $500 billion a year spend on this, including $100 billion online.