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Product placements: When is an ad not an ad?

fashionI recently travelled by bus from Pune to Mumbai. As is usual on the four-hour bus ride, they showed a movie. This trip they showed a Hindi film called Kya Kool Hai Hum. The film itself was enjoyable in a silly kind of way. But it left no lasting impression, and it is not a movie I would recommend. What did leave an impression, however, was the insidious amount of ‘product placement’ in the movie.

Product placement is a trick used by companies and their advertising agencies in which they pay movie directors and production companies money to ensure that the characters in the movie use or mention a real commercial product. Sometimes it’s very subtle, at other times blatant. But it is a way of advertising that, because it doesn’t seem like advertising, works really well.

When a company wants to advertise its products on TV, films, newspapers or magazines, it does so in well-defined advertising ‘space’, like the margins of newspapers, commercial breaks or during the interval in movies. This way we, the viewers and readers, know when something is an advertisement and can, if we want to, ‘intellectually’ reject it. By contributing to the mood and tone of a movie, product placements are harder to reject. The advertisements masquerade as part of the movie.

Very generally, product placement involves placing a product in highly visible situations.

It’s easy to say that you are not going to buy something because you saw it on TV or in a movie. But it’s a bit subtler than that. And all that it takes is showing the product or company logo in a positive situation. Unlike a real ad there is no mention of price or the usual comparisons with other products.

The most common type of product placement is the inclusion of a product name or logo in the foreground or background of a scene. In Kya Kool Hai Hum, the hip, young, trendy-ness of the lead characters is based around a particular brand of clothing. We constantly get to see the logo and name of the clothing in the background, emphasising the admirable qualities of the characters so that anyone who identifies with the characters also identifies with that particular brand of clothing. What was interesting about the film was both the obviousness of the placements as well as the number of times it happened -- it seemed to engulf the movie!

Yet this is nothing new. Product placement has been going on for a while and is now considered such an effective form of advertising that there are specialist companies that deal only with this form of advertising. Directors and movie production companies receive large amounts of money for such placements.

In the recently released English movie Herbie: Fully Loaded, made by the huge transnational corporation, Disney, the product placements were apparently so blatant that nearly every review of the movie mentioned it. There were complaints about how product placements had overshadowed this family movie about a lovable car with a mind of its own. Even the characters’ dialogue had advertising written into it!

Cars are some of the earliest products to be so placed in movies, and are a good example of how such placements work. Most cars within a certain price range (no matter who they are made by) are pretty much alike, with some minor external differences. So to sell them, car manufacturers ‘position’ their products to fit into certain lifestyles, into the way customers see themselves. Some cars are sold as expensive luxuries with comfort as an important factor, others for ruggedness, some for speed, yet others for their safety. If a car company that is selling a car on its supposed ruggedness can get a movie character who is seen as knowledgeable and rugged to drive the car, it is as effective -- if not more so -- as running an advertisement extolling the car’s robustness. Likewise a rich character driving a luxury car: a second-long image of the car in the right setting, and the viewer instantly makes the connection. He may not explicitly think: “I want others to think I am rich and live luxuriously. In this movie the rich person drives this model, so me buying and driving the same model will show others that I am rich.” All that is needed is the connection between luxury and that particular car.

A viewer who might easily be able to resist the obviousness of being told what to buy might find it far more difficult to resist the psychological manipulation of being subconsciously told that being rich, cool and attractive means wearing a certain brand of clothing, drinking a certain soft drink or, worse, smoking a certain brand of cigarettes. After all, in real life, many of these well-paid actors are seen as role models, even trendsetters. 

Products that can be advertised in this fashion range from cars to soft drinks, clothes to cigarettes. The cigarettes case is particularly interesting since tobacco advertising is actually banned in many countries. Yet you can have an attractive character in a movie smoking a particular brand of cigarettes and have his character leave the pack visibly lying around, or you can have him asking for the brand at a shop. You can have a lead character walk into a restaurant and ask for a soft drink by name, or see him drink from the bottle or can in a manner that obviously shows the logo.

In a more subtle way, brand names are fused to popular culture while products are used to make characters and scenes seem more real. Actors like this as it often means they get a chance to be associated with a trendy product, making them also seem trendy and fashionable.

Now, since the effectiveness of such advertising is becoming more well-known, product placement is being done not just in movies but also in TV series, music videos and video games. The now-common tie-ups, spin-offs and links between these is making it all the more easy.

-- Manoj Nadkarni

October 2005

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