Friday, December 31, 2004

Product Placement and Such....

Surviving a plane crash, but hopelessly stranded on an island, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) considers using the clothes and shoes of a dead man before breaking protocol and illegally opening FedEx packages to find tools for survival. With the use of FedEx and a silent costarring appearance of a Wilson volleyball, the movie Cast Away took product placement in movies to new heights.

According to Friedman, “This strategy is part of a trend of corporations attempting to move beyond advertising and other familiar marketing strategies, to more firmly embed their brands into the culture” (“Cast Away and the contradictions,”). Although the movie Cast Away is advertising FedEx and Wilson products, the movie presents these advertisements in a way in which the audience can create its own real world identity with the reality of the movie. The audience does not just catch a glimpse of FedEx or Wilson on the big screen. Instead, the products and company logos are used to make the film more reality based.

With the creation of product placement, advertisements are being carefully imbedded into television shows and movies to produce images the consumer will find attractive. McMurdy (2002) states that, “product placement is booming because of the advent of personal video technology which allows viewers to skip over commercial messages. By making their products an organic part of the actual content, advertisers ensure their brand gets displayed” (The art of product placement). Whether or not product placement is getting the better of the scores of “channel-surfers” in this world, this unorthodox type of advertising has slowly evolved to become an effective means to grab the consumer’s attention without the use of methods such as commercials.

The movie E.T. was the first modern product placement success in terms of profit. After E.T. producers were turned down by Mars for the use M&M’s in the movie, E.T. producers asked Hershey if they could use its Reese’s Pieces product. The effects on the sales of this little known Hershey product were tremendous. “Within two weeks of the movie's premiere, Reese's Pieces sales went through the roof” (Mikkelson, 2001) and Hershey saw a 65% increase in sales of Reese’s Pieces.

All this revenue was accumulated by showing an intelligent and noble alien protagonist on the big screen eating and enjoying many a Reese’s Pieces. Following E.T.’s 1982 debut, many other movies successfully incorporated product placements into their scripts. James Bond drove a BMW Z3 in Goldeneye, Tom Cruise wore Ray-Bans in Risky Bussiness and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan communicated via AOL in You’ve Got Mail (Beal, 2003).

In the movie Toy Story, Jay May, president of the Los Angeles-based product placement agency Feature This, stated that product placement increased sales for Etch A Sketch by 1,400 percent and Mr. Potato Head sales by 800 percent (York, 2001). Moreover, May stated that, “Slinky was out of business for 10 years. But after 20,000 phone calls from distributors and toy stores, they went back in business. They've sold $27 million since" (York, 2001).

If product placement in a computer graphic movie such as Toy Story can bring back a deceased company, how is product placement so effective? According to Cheney (1992), “presentational or pictorial symbols are often better equipped than discursive symbols for expressing sentiment because the mind is able to read them in a “flash” and preserve them in a disposition or attitude” (p. 175). While most commercials try to make their product appeal to you by logic, such as comparing a product to another product, product placement appeals to a more emotional logic.

In Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character Chuck is a well rounded and exceptional FedEx worker who promotes timeliness and strong work ethics. Having been stranded on an island and ultimately surviving, he realistically quits his position at FedEx because his experiences have changed his world view. This is understandable to the viewer, as the viewer has followed Chuck through his near death experiences and dreadful monotony of spending four years on an uninhabited island. But in the end, Chuck finally delivers his prized FedEx package to its intended recipient, which on the island was considered a motivating factor to return to civilization. Although this sequence of events is just part of the movie, the fact that the logo for FedEx is used in Cast Away creates an emotional bond for the audience to connect to Chuck’s character. In his essay, Cast Away and the Contradictions of Product Placement, Friedman states:

For these companies, branding was not just a matter of adding value to a product. It was about thirstily soaking up cultural ideas and iconography that their brands could reflect by projecting these ideas and images back on the culture as “extensions” of their brands. Culture, in other words, would add value to their brands. (“Beyond product placement,”)

The audience identifies with Chuck’s humanization because of his characterization and the experiences he goes through. But in retrospect, FedEx profits by having its logo and its commercial values expressed through Chuck.

But the most interesting phenomenon of product placement in movies like Cast Away and E.T., is that product placement benefits both film makers and corporations. FedEx didn’t pay a single dime to have their product in the movie Cast Away. The movie was just provided with FedEx apparel, planes, trucks and other props to make the story more believable in the film makers eye (Friedman, “Beyond product placement,”). Similarly, Hershey did not have to pay any money to feature Reese’s Pieces in E.T.. The only stipend to the contract was that Hershey had to use $1 million dollars in advertisements to promote the movie. But this also meant that Hershey’s was allowed to use E.T., in correlation with Reese’s Pieces, as a means to advance their product (Mikkelson, 2001). Today’s trend of product placement of movies, according to Waisberg (2002) tells us that, “free props mean significant savings for smaller productions, 95% of actual placements cost nothing” (“Light’s,”).

As mentioned earlier, “channel-surfers” who skip over expensive advertisement slots while watching television is one of the reasons product placements are so popular. Recently, with “the advent of TiVo and other services that make it easier for viewers to edit out commercials, has forced advertisers and television producers to think of new ways to integrate products into television shows” (York, 2001). These new digital technologies that are able to blot out commercials and subscriber based media with no commercials, like XM Radio, are becoming more popular. This means that advertisers are going to have to rely on more product placement in the upcoming advertising age.

According to May, in the future of product placement, one could be watching the television show Friends and like a shirt that one of the characters has on. In the future:

Your remote is going to be like [a] cursor. You'll point the arrow on the TV and click Monica's shirt. That will pause the program, and a little window will pop up and say, 'Available at Macy's for $129.95. Click here to order it now.' It's not in place now because people need digital TV to have it work. (York, 2001)

Effective product placement can be a very positive thing for the advertisement industry. Through product placement, companies can embed a product in a television show or movie in which the culture that surrounds that product intensifies consumer sales. This does not mean that all product placements are effective. According to Kenneth (2004), “if the product placement is unnatural to both the program and the product, and ultimately to the viewer, it could be a negative…especially if it is to the degree that it may diminish a bond between the character and the audience” (You be the judge). Advertisers and producers must be aware of advertising clutter. If the authenticity of the artistry that goes into the creation of a medium for general viewers is corrupted, not only is the artistry tainted, but also the product.

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