Product placements in movies and TV shows are becoming so commonplace that my kids now cynically take note of them whenever they appear. It wasn’t always that way. In 1982 when I first saw E.T. I had no idea that Elliott’s use of Reeses’ Pieces to lure E.T. into his home was part of a clever marketing ploy that had been pre-arranged with the multinational conglomerate selling the candy. Now that nearly every household has a DVR allowing viewers to fast-forward through commercials, advertisers are relying more and more heavily on product placement to show off their wares. But how effective are product placements in getting their message to customers?
There hasn’t actually been a lot of published research on product placement, since marketing firms like to keep that information to themselves. And the research that has been done may not be realistic enough to draw useful conclusions: In one study, a researcher used low-production-value films created in the laboratory to test the efficacy of product placements, but that may not tell us much about how people respond to products in slick Hollywood productions. In other studies, a distinction wasn’t made between products that simply appeared in a movie and ones that were important to the storyline. From these studies we know that people do tend to remember the brands they see in a movie, but we can’t say much about how a particular product’s placement makes a difference.
Moonhee Yang and David Roskos-Ewoldsen showed 373 students from the University of Alabama one of 15, 20-minute movie clips taken from major Hollywood films. Around the middle of each clip was a single product placement of interest. These products had been pre-selected by a preference panel to be roughly equally appealing. Another panel assessed the importance of the product in the movie’s storyline by placing it in one of three categories: Background (not important to story), Used by Character, and Story Connection (meaning the product was actually related to the plot of the movie). This table lists all the products and films in the study:
After watching the movie clip and completing a survey with demographic information and questions about how much they liked it, the students were given a “word game study” where they were presented with partially completed words and asked to complete them. The purpose of this test is to see if the students were biased to complete the words with the brand-names they saw in the movies. For example, they might be given a word like C_KE. This could be completed as both “CAKE” and “COKE.” Most of the words they completed had nothing to do with the brands in the film they saw — but they might have been a brand in one of the other clips. Then after another distractor task, the students were directly asked which brands they saw in the clip. So did seeing a brand-name in the movie affect the responses? Here are the results:
As you can see, if the product was actually used in the clip, it was recognized significantly more often than if it was just a part of the background. However, there was no apparent advantage for having the product play a role in the story of the movie: whether the product was just used by a character in the film or it was a part of the plot, there was no difference in how often it was recognized. The researchers took a closer look at the clips and found that in the movie Twister, where Pepsi cans were converted into propellers to lift instruments into a tornado, respondents were only 50% accurate in identifying whether it had been in the film. Taking a look at the movie itself, the use of Pepsi took place in a very dark scene, and it’s possible that viewers simply didn’t see the brand name at all. If the Twister clip is removed from the analysis, then products connected to the story are remembered more often than products that were just used by a character.
Interestingly, for the word completion task, a similar result was found. Viewers who had seen a product in their clip were significantly more likely to complete the word with the brand name (e.g. “Coke” for “C_KE”), compared to viewers who hadn’t seen that product. But there was no difference in the results based on how the product was used in the film. For this “implicit memory” of a product, it doesn’t matter how it’s used in the movie.
Finally, as the students left the theater, they were offered a choice of one of several products, including the product that had been seen in their clip. Once again, they were significantly more likely to pick the product that had been featured in their clip. But once again, how the product was presented didn’t matter: as long as they had seen the product, they were more likely to pick that one.
Yang and Roskos-Ewoldsen say that the type of product-placement an advertiser opts for should depend on their marketing goals. If you want to build awareness of a brand, it’s probably best to opt for a placement that plays a role in the story itself. But if you just want to reinforce preferences for a well-known brand (say, “Coke” versus “Pepsi”), it’s probably not necessary to go to that expense. Just having your brand in the movie works just as well.
Yang, M., & Roskos-Ewoldsen, D. (2007). The Effectiveness of Brand Placements in the Movies: Levels of Placements, Explicit and Implicit Memory, and Brand-Choice Behavior Journal of Communication, 57 (3), 469-489 DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2007.00353.x