Product placements in movies: When they work, and when they don't

ResearchBlogging.orgProduct 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

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The 'best' product placement I have seen recently is Subaru's placement of a couple of WRX Impreza's in the SyFy series 'Eureka'. In their introductory episode one was used for a dash because 'it will get you there faster than anything else we have'. Until I saw that scene I was unaware that Subaru was the main sponsor for the last season. Afterwards I noticed their sponsorship credit.

'best' because I noticed and remember it clearly. 'best' in terms of results? I don't know for sure, but I see a lot of Subarus here in the NW. Including several new wrx's in the parking lot here at work.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 28 Oct 2009 #permalink

I love watching the changing computers at Jack Bauer's office (in "24"), depending on which company is sponsoring the show each season.

Without having read the entire study, it seems to me that the last task--the choosing of a product--can't be linked directly to the product placement. Right before that task, the participants are asked to name the product they saw, so of course it's on their minds.

Still an interesting study. The psychology of marketing is fascinating.

There was that annoying alien-invasion film, some years ago, where they saved the world using a LOT of shampoo. Branded shampoo. I felt cheated; like I'd been tricked into paying to watch an advert.

That was Evolution! I also felt a little bit weird after they put the branded shampoo in, but I think it was so 'in your face' that it was already funny again...

Eureka's marketing is better this year. Last year when they were sponsored by Degree deodorant or whatever it is, the product placement was so in-your-face that my husband swore to never ever ever buy the product in his life. We were so annoyed, we told *other* people never to buy it!

The Subaru placement, however, has been clever and amusing. Unfortunately for them, I have a friend with a Subaru that has been the most unreliable car I've ever seen. So I would never buy one.

Product placement always makes me laugh because I am so blind to them. I once took part in a study where we were shown someone walking through an airport with some luggage on a cart and the tester was so pissed off with me because I missed EVERY SINGLE product and ad (including one that was smack on the side of the cart the person was pushing) except one which was a poster advertising Bermuda and wasn't one of the ones they were testing for!

@7: I don't think there's a single car marque that has never sold a lemon. I've had my Outback for nearly 10 reliable years now and I still love it. And the number of the previous model that are still on the road says something to their reliability in general. I can always get in for regular maintenance at my chosen time of day with only a couple day's notice - could be less but I don't chance it - which speaks to a relatively low workload in the service department. This at the only dealer on the Peninsula. And the Subaru (Outbacks and Forrester) could be said to have become the 'official' car of the area, there are so many of them. I do not think that would happen if the brand was so unreliable in general.

By Gray Gaffer (not verified) on 29 Oct 2009 #permalink

One nitpick: "Now that nearly every household has a DVR..."

I don't think that this is true. The most DVRed show on the air right now is Dollhouse (used to be Terminator) and even in this case 75%+ of the audience is watching it 'live' as a normal broadcast, commercials and all.

I suspect that DVR usage tends to cluster in particular social communities. If you own and use a DVR, it's likely that most of your friends do as well, which may make it seem more commonplace than it is.

Is there a small problem with the concept of recognition though? Because if I see some horrible ugly product placement (think Dr Pepper in Forest Gump) it makes me want to not buy the product. I now dislike whatever crap they are pushing.

On the other hand I thought the Pepsi cans in Twister were quite clever and subtly introduced in a way that didn't antagonise me.

On the other hand maybe I'm just a freak?

By antipodean (not verified) on 29 Oct 2009 #permalink

Interesting - This op-ed was just in the Washington Post today.

"The FCC is considering rule amendments that would (1) make disclosures more salient to the audience, (2) extend disclosure rules to satellite and cable networks and (3) ban product placement in programs for children under 12. The proceeding, launched by former FCC chairman Kevin Martin last year, is rooted in a principle that has long been acknowledged by Congress and the FCC: People have a right to know when someone is trying to sell them something. "

The list seems less than represenatitive. The studied brands are all for low-cost foodstuffs - the success of these may not match the success of higher-value status goods. Product placement for cars and mobile phones is commonplace. Even the new Star Trek film plays the Nokia Jingle at one point.

There are far many other movies where I can certainly remember thinking I've just walked out of a 2hour commercial.

I think my favorite example of this is "The Island", where it becomes rather painfully obvious - that I was being subjected to a Cadillac advertisement cosponsored by Microsoft pimping the "X-Box"

I think the most hilarious bit of product placement I've ever seen was in a Hollywood movie that was supposed to play in britain, and one scene had a bunch of londoner construction workers who were sharing a sixpack of Bud.

Bud. In London. Drunk by construction workers.

Not that it had any effect (other than being the only scene from that movie I remember), since I didn't like Bud before, and I didn't like it any more or less after.

By Jadehawk, OM (not verified) on 30 Oct 2009 #permalink

can u pls send me da link of eureka's introductory episode whr subaru's product placement is dun..i want sum clips on prod placement..wud b very grateful to u coz i cnt find it:S