The Mother of Native Marketing: Product Placement
Product placement is ages old, infinitely effective, and puts commercial interest natively in works that themselves require products that are recognizable outside the diegetic level of the story. Sometimes these placements, the poorly placed ones, are met with groans or laughs from audiences for their blatant misuse. Other times they’re so seamless it would have seemed odd to the audience if the product wasn’t there. The industry of product placement as it relates to native advertising is connected by how well the placement is executed, and to what effect. One could say that native marketing was born as an evolution of integrated marketing of this kind, by making the advertisement a product itself, while integrated marketing puts the product into content instead. Yet despite the changes in contemporary ad techniques, integrated marketing has continued, and is still largely effective today.
Here’s a list of famous and infamous product placements in popular media.
- The Real “American Cheeseburger”- Iron Man
Marvel’s slew of uber-popular and heavily attended super-hero flick releases began in 2008 with its production of Iron Man, a film that received garlands of praise from critics and audiences alike, as well as a few raised eyebrows and distinctive chuckles during one particular scene of note. Recently returned from his ordeal in Afghanistan, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark only has two demands. He needs a press conference, and an “American cheeseburger”. Cut to the next scene, and walking into that press conference is the hero of millions of children and adults alike, carrying a less than inconspicuous takeaway bag emblazoned with the recognizable emblem of Burger King, which he promptly ensues to eat as he speaks. There is no doubt in the audience mind just what kind of advertising is being done here. Not only is Burger King officially lauded as the real “American Cheeseburger”, but it also officially becomes the burger that Iron Man eats. A fair number of moviegoers were miffed at the heavy-handedness of the product placement, and understandably so, as watching the scene without the product placement could have been just as effective, so we won’t put this down as an outright success in integrated marketing, despite how successful it was for the Burger King brand.
Interestingly enough, Iron Man star Robert Downey Jr. credits Burger King with helping him overcome addiction in 2003, though not in a flattering way. “It was such a disgusting burger I ordered,” he said, “I had that, and this big soda, and I thought something really bad was going to happen.” This prompted the star to change his habits. Not flattering at all.
- “Keep your hands, arms, and accessories inside the car.”- Toy Story
When addressing the most beloved film franchises in history, Pixar’s Toy Story makes it on the list. It also makes it on ours, because the films didn’t shy away from product placement. While the main characters of the story were inventions of the writers, Hasbro Inc. made a subtle foray into Pixar’s successful series in the first film with toys like Mr. Potato Head. In the next installment, Toy Story 2 went to another well-known toy brand, Mattel Inc., for the use of Barbie. Clearly, product placement here did not damage to the integrity of the works, and in this case, the recognizable aspect of using known toys helped audiences connect with the fantastic nature of the story, inspiring children to wonder if their Barbie walks around and talks when they aren’t looking.
- “Twinkies have an expiration date.”- Zombieland
These are cases of humor admitting certain allowances in product placement. The entire plot of Zombieland, and indeed the arc of a main character, focuses on his incessant drive to find himself a Twinkie. From Hostess’ standpoint, the idea that their product is the only thing worth searching for at the end of the world is marketable to say the least, and from the audiences perspective, the humor that this might be so adds depth to characters and roots them in this strange world. This is not the only instance of using known products as driving forces for characters and entire plots of movies. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle also employs comedy to excuse the excess of integrated marketing in their film (Though White Castle reportedly did not pay for their part). But for both films, not everyone was thrilled when they saw the movie as a giant advertisement. In Zombieland, for Hostess products, the logo was emblazoned on the side of trucks, filling the whole screen for moments at a time. In 2012, the Hostess Brand declared bankruptcy. The two instances are obviously unrelated, but it seems sometimes even the hardest pushes for integrated marketing aren’t enough to turn things around, and its no wonder the tide of advertising techniques has shifted recently.
- Pretty Much Everything in Mad Men
It should come as no surprise that many of the long list of products and brands used in the stories of AMC’s Mad Men not only actually existed in the 50’s era the show is presented in, but still exist today. Almost every episode deals with a new product being tackled from an advertising perspective by the show’s protagonist. From Life cereal, Heineken beer, Jaguar automobiles, Kodak cameras, Right Guard deodorant, Popsicles, Chevron, Gillette, the list goes on and on. Cinzano, an Italian vermouth company, even openly admitted that yes, their part in the seventh season was indeed placed intentionally, but not once does this ever come across as unwarranted or a gross abuse of audience’s trust in the show. It makes perfect sense that a show presumably set in the real world would have real world brands, and since the brands themselves are merely featured, rather than focalized, not one eye is justifiably rolled. Mad Men succeeds in an almost meta exhibition of product placement because there would have been no other way around using the products in the first place. Sometimes, it’s hard to say for sure if it really is paid placement or authentic TV narrative, but the audience not only doesn’t care, they actively enjoy the process.
- Honorable Mention
Or dishonorable, at times.
TV series such as Cavemen, a show derived form a well known GEICO ad series, and films like The Internship, essentially a long advertisement on how quirky and funny Google is, failed miserably for the transgression of working the marketing angle too hard. But other films such as Transformers did wonders for sponsors like Chevrolet and General Motors, and delighted audiences enough to spark an entire series.
However, our most honorable mention goes tongue and cheek to Wayne’s World, which commented meta-diagetically on the apparent faults of integrated marketing while simultaneously, and excessively, pandering to paid brand placements in one famous scene.
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