Film as A Marketing Device

Monday, December 13, 2004

Author: Bryan Ghingold

Film is a perfect medium for marketing. People go to the movies to attain a sense of belonging and emotional security. At home, people can change the channel during the commercials, or tune to a different station on the radio. In the theatre, all they can do is leave. And after paying ten dollars admission and seven dollars on snacks, who would want to do that? Since the birth of film in the 1890’s, moviegoers have been emptying their pockets to escape their day to day lives, and be entertained for a brief amount of time. From the still frame, to the thirty second clip, to the ten minute short, to the three hour epic, film has, and always will, draw an audience. And while motion picture ads have been around since the beginning, it wasn’t until the 1930s that advertisers began to fully realize the value and potential of film.

Force two hundred people into a room where they are immobilized, and forced to look at a giant illuminated screen in a dark, locked room. After a few minutes, when the prisoners stop squirming, advertisement after advertisement begins rolling across the screen. No matter what the captive consumer tries to do, he cannot escape. What if the prisoners went willingly, however? What if they preferred to sit in the dark room? What if they paid to look at the screen, and volunteered not to leave until it was over? The former description is a dark caricature of the advertiser’s fantasy. The latter is that of the average American movie-goer. Sad to say, the two descriptions are frighteningly similar.

According to the 2003 Nielson Cinema Report, almost one third of the U.S. population goes to the movies at least once a month, five or six times a year. Out of those one hundred million people, fifty six percent are in the tender ad-susceptible demographic of twelve to thirty four.3 Advertising in and with the movies used to be looked down upon. With the rise of consumer controlled media (TiVo, DVD, Satellite, Digital Video Recorders, etc.), “filmarketing” has become one of the fastest growing outlets for advertising. Fitting perhaps, because film is the fastest growing entertainment medium in the U.S.3

In the early years of cinema, slide films were used to advertise; shown during the intermission or at the end of a show. The early slide film was only able to advertise local businesses, and not conglomerates for the simple reason that the technology of the glass slide prevented long distance shipping and handling. As the nickelodeon receded, making way for chains and cineplexes, slides too became a thing of the past, appearing sporadically only in second and third run movie houses, until they died out altogether. The advertiser was not lost, however. While tie-ins and product placement had not yetbeen born, separate movies were made, whose sole purpose was to advertise a company’s product or products.

Since the standard film at the time was little longer than a television commercial, ad films were a no-brainer. Companies strategically commissioned films disguised as entertainment, as it was a well known fact; people would be willing to be advertised to, so long as they were entertained, but they would not willingly see a film that would not entertain them. Such films were rarely used to advertise to the general public, however.A more common use for these films was to show them at conventions or promotions to brand-loyal customers as a method of “securing the base.”

Of course, that method did not bring new customers, so advertisers needed a way to sell their company’s product without bombarding the audience. Thus, product placement was born. The use of products in films is a necessary evil. Characters behaving on screen like every day people need to use every day items. Each day, people drive cars, which have brand names. Each day, people eat food and drink beverages, which have brand names. They wear clothes, go to stores and restaurants, and read books or magazines; all things with brand names. For the longest time in cinema, product placement was looked down upon. To move past this, yet still allow for the film to feel real, brand names were often not shown, and generic products were featured. While product placement did occur, it wasn’t until recently that it became a standard practice.

That happened in 1982, with Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and perhaps the most well known product placement deal in history. The script called for the young boy, Elliott, to lure E.T. out from the shed and into the house with a trail of candy. Spielberg and the producers approached M&M/Mars, and asked how much they would pay for the feature of their flagship product: M&Ms. M&M/Mars refused, insulted, saying it should be the production company who has to pay them, not the other way around. Spielberg left M&M/Mars, and took the same proposal to the Hershey Foods Company. Hershey’s agreed to pay one million dollars for their product, Reese’s Pieces, to be used in the film. After the release of E.T, Reese’s sales jumped sixty five percent, setting a precedent for product placement, and leaving M&M/Mars very regretful.

Since E.T, product placement has become commonplace in most films. In 2003, the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy (GRIID) did a study on product placement in films. Of the fifty films they surveyed, sixty four percent had product placements. Of the films with product placements, fifty three percent had the product “significantly integrated into the film’s plot.”10 Although product placement can be imposing, is not necessarily a bad thing. When handled properly, a company promotes its product, and gets a return investment, while the audience member gets a realistic movie representing life, which therefore delivers entertainment and enjoyment.

According to the Theatre-Screen Advertising Bureau in 1958, “The public has been strongly conditioned to accept advertising with entertainment.” While this statement at the time it was made applied more to television, today, it holds eerily true for film. Audiences loved it when Keanu Reeves used his cool Nokia Spring Phone in 1999’s The Matrix, and when James Bond remotely drove his BMW with his futuristic Ericsson phone in 1997’s Tomorrow Never Dies. Even though both of the aforementioned products do not exist (the Matrix phone available only in Australia, and discontinued shortly thereafter, and the car-driving Bond phone an optimistic look into the future), their presence in the film helps sell other products made by their respective companies. This “self glorification” of the company’s product makes money because it says to the audience “we can do things other companies can’t (even though they generally can’t). We are sexy.” In the case of the Lexus “Mag-Lev” and the Audi “RSQ” (featured in The Minority Report and I, Robot, respectively), the product’s presence in the fantasy future subliminally tells the audience “Look, this is a brand that will be standing tall in the future. We will still exist, and we will still be sexy.”

Sexy is the key, as BMW learned, marketing their Z3 in the 1995 James Bond movie GoldenEye. BMW and Metro Goldwin Myer/United Artists had an agreement in which James Bond would retire his all too famous Aston-Martin and instead use the new Z3, which was (at the time of the film’s release) not yet available to the general public. The marketing plan made sense; they were re-launching the Bond franchise (the previous Bond film, License to Kill, came out in 1989) with a sexy new Bond (Pierce Brosnan), and a sexy new car (the BMW Z3). BMW initially wanted to produce twenty of the twenty nine thousand dollar cars, but expensive and extensive market research came up with the new figure of one hundred units. BMW, skeptical of their marketing department’s findings, reluctantly agreed. By the time of the film’s release there were over six thousand preorders for the car, which had still not been made available for public consumption.

Of course, it is not just the product’s presence which makes companies money. There are varying degrees of product placement, which, of course, determine the cost of the advertisement. Generally, product placement can cost anywhere from five thousand dollars to one million dollars (per product, per placement), depending on the importance of the featured product, and the profile of the film (A-list cast/crew, prospective box office earnings, fan base, etc.). The placement of the product also determines both the cost and, generally the return; how good does the placement do for the company and for the product? There are considered to be nine levels of product placement: Background (ex: a Frigidaire toaster oven sitting on a kitchen counter), background close up (a can of Folgers Coffee; close up), foreground (any such item in front of a character), foreground close up (any such item in front of a character; close up), hands on (actor touches product), hands on close up (actor touches product; close up), implied endorsement (actor uses product or wears product), verbal (actor mentions product), and verbal plus (actor mentions and either touches or uses product). Despite the success of most product placement, advertisers, actors, and directors must still be careful. Just as product placement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it isn’t necessarily a good thing either. The line between realistic use and “in-your-face” advertising is very fine.

Sometimes, and it can be rather blatant, product placement goes too far. In the first five minutes of the 2004 movie I, Robot, there are over twelve product placements. It has reached the point, in the case of some movies (like 2002’s Die Another Day), where the products are the stars of the film. When this occurs, the audience tends to be taken out of the experience, and they become resentful. In addition to the anger against the marketers, and the ruined outing, audiences sometimes become upset with the studio and in particular, the director, for having “sold out their artistic integrity.”20 In the 1993 futuristic police drama Demolition Man, the restaurant chain Taco Bell had an overexposed product placement, featured as the only food chain in existence, having been the sole survivor of the “franchise wars.” Audiences overwhelmingly rejected the placement. As a result, the movie, with an otherwise interesting story and A-list cast (Sylvester Stallone, Sandra Bullock, Wesley Snipes), flopped.

While it is the most popular, product placement is not the only form of marketing through film. Still slides, which went out of style in the 1940s, resurfaced in the late 1980s, and continue into present day. The technology exists now, to allow large corporations to make slides and advertise all over the country, or the world, should they so desire. The modern day slide appears before and after the film, often with catchy (and more importantly, current) music playing in the background, and advertise everything from public service announcements, doctor’s services, candy and soda beverages, even the cinema in which the slides are playing.

A little earlier than the still slide, another form of marketing with films was introduced. Using the marketing principle of repetition (repeating the product’s image or name to the point where it becomes a part of the consumer’s nature to think about or use), advertisers began taking advantage of cross-promotion, or commercial tie ins. Characters from a film would appear (along with a product endorsement or a logo) on theatre house popcorn bags and soda cups. Outside of the theatre, candies, toys, and other products would also endorse or carry the name or image of a sponsor’s product. However, the most recent, and perhaps most controversial form of marketing in film is the showcase of television commercials during the trailers, under the guise of a movie preview. The concept is relatively new, not having become a standard practice until late in 2001. Extended length commercials, often filmed to deceive the audience into thinking they are watching a movie trailer have now become a (rather unwanted) staple of the film-going experience. The controversy exists under the premise that by paying the (often exorbitant) ticket price, there is an understood agreement between the theatre house and the moviegoer that the theatre would not advertise commercials to its patrons. While some cinemas refuse to show commercials with the previews before the film, they tend to be the exception more than the rule. The success of stills, tie-ins, and commercials cannot be ignored. It is product placement, however, that has, and always will, dominate the realm of advertising and film.

The susceptibility of movie audiences to advertising is not just exploited in the United States. In fact, the U.S. is toward the lower middle of the global scale; with only twenty six percent of consumers agreeing that products seen in films become more appealing. Mexico is number one, with fifty three percent of its consumer population saying they would be more likely to buy a product if they saw it in a film. Singapore comes in second with forty nine percent, India in third with thirty eight percent, Hong Kong in fourth with thirty three percent, and then the United States. Not surprisingly, France, Denmark, and Finland are the least willing to buy products seen in films, and the most vocally opposed, citing an infringement on the artistic form.

Even though film audiences are not too keen on being exploited and advertised to, they aren’t going anywhere. They will still empty their pockets for nine dollar admission tickets, buy snacks at three hundred percent of their actual value, and sit in that dark room, voluntarily facing the giant screen. Knowing this, it is a safe bet to say film advertising is not going anywhere, either. Film has been around a long time; more than one hundred years. And as long as there has been film, there have been ads, in one form or another. Will there come a time when preview commercials and product placement go too far? Will eye scanners, personalizing inescapable ads, like in the futuristic nightmare of the Minority Report come true? Only time, and the marketers themselves, will tell.


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Images taken from the internet used without permission for illustrative effect and not for profit

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