Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to product placement

In 1896, only one year after the Lumiere Brothers had patented the cinematograph, product placement had already entered the world of cinema. In return for promotion and distribution of the Lumieres’ films across Europe, Francois-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, Swiss representative for Sunlight Soap, entered a deal to feature his product, or a board advertising his product, within clear view of the camera in their films (the Lumiere’s also helped advertise Evian). Clearly then, product placement is as old as cinema itself. However, product placement has rapidly increased in the contemporary period, with films produced between 1980 and 2010 featuring almost double the number of product placements when compared to those made between 1950 and 1979 (Walton 74). This trend has accelerated in the last decade, growing 9.2% between 2009 and 2014 (Karr). Accompanying this growth is an increase in product placement’s market value, rising by $4.7m between 2003 and 2005. (Gutnik et al 8). Companies who wish to place their products in film now often cover a large percentage of a film’s budget. This can be seen in Skyfall (2012) where the partnership with Heineken provided $45m – nearly a third of the overall budget – in return for switching Bond’s classic martini for a cold beer. So, if product placement has been around since the advent of film, why the sudden increase in the contemporary period?

Multiple factors explain this increase. First, an 80% increase in the sale of the confectionary brand Reese’s Pieces following their placement in E.T. (1982) showed advertisers the potential in placing the right product in the right film. This inspired more companies to seek to exploit the opportunity, leading to almost a doubling in cinema’s product placements between E.T.’s release and 2010 (Gutnik et al 6). Second, with most homes now possessing some form of Digital Video Recording (DVR), be it Virgin, Sky, ReplayTV or TiVo, adverts are more and more often being fast forwarded through and ignored, creating a decline in audiences for advertisers. With 90% of TiVo subscribers admitting they skipped adverts (Gutnik et al 20), a problem was created for advertising companies to the extent that they felt legal intervention was required. In 2001, 28 plaintiffs gathered together, including Paramount Pictures, Disney, ABC and more, to sue ReplayTV’s company Sonicblue for enabling viewers to bypass adverts thereby allowing a “contributory and vicarious infringement of [the] plaintiffs’ copyrights” (Gutnik et al 2). Third, not only is the audience for television adverts dropping, but the television audience in general is falling as people turn to other forms of entertainment media such as the internet and video games, the peak usage hours of both now coinciding with primetime television. Furthermore, popular browser extensions such as AdBlock allow the filtering of adverts from the internet. As a consequence, advertisers now look for different ways to get their advertisements seen, such as placing their products in different media texts such as video games and the cinema. Advertisers use this method because it resists any attempt by the viewer to skip past or ignore the product placement. The viewer’s lack of control, as well as a lack of subtlety in some product placements, have led to negative attitudes towards the strategy in general and particular companies or products. The calculated way in which the products are placed are often so unrealistic that audiences have reported feeling it takes away from the fantasy-escapist element, the realism and the storyline, reminding us swiftly that the film is part of a wider corporate money-making scheme.

Studies have found that this can have an adverse effect on sales as it tends to give the audience an negative impression of their brand (Homer 26). One company famous for this not-so-subtle product placement is Budweiser. In Fallen (1992) we see a shameless promotion at a bar as John Hobbes (Denzel Washington) rejects the bartender’s beer brand suggestions and instead asks for a Budweiser. He defends his choice to the man next to him, and when the man offers to buy him the drink, he explains it is affordable so he can buy it himself. Budweiser’s shameless approach to product placement is repeated in Flight (2012) where Whip Whittaker (Denzel Washington again!) is again seen drinking Budweiser, but this time he drinks a can with the logo positioned clearly towards the camera which The Guardian describes as “insultingly overt” and having “the opposite effect of promoting” (Holpuch 2013). This irritatingly overt product placement is brought to attention in films such as Wayne’s World (1992) which has a running joke at the copious amounts of overt product placement and The Truman Show (1998), where product placement is shown as part of the reason the main character realises he is in a false world – because even in this fake, fabricated world such exaggerated love for a product is unconvincing. These films indicate how by the late 1990s overt and obvious product placement was failing to convince audiences who were increasingly less likely to buy a product simply because a fictional character is paid to promote it.

As a consequence product placement has become stealthier. In the interest of achieving brand recognition without a negative impact, advertisers are increasingly attempting to place their product without pushing it down people’s throats. Whereas between 1920 and 1949, 25 per cent of product placement had been inserted with reinforcement by positive appraisal from the characters, which Walton categorises as positive product placement, between 1980 and 2009, this form had decreased to 3 per cent (Walton 74) with the other 97 per cent of product appearances existing without verbal appraisal of the product from any on-screen character. This suggests a contemporary audience will be more likely to accept product placement if it is handled subtly, placing items into subtly within the wider mise-en-scene in a realist or seemingly contingent way. However, even product placements that are not reinforced with verbal praise do not always sit well with contemporary audiences. James Bond trading in his classic martini – shaken, not stirred – for a Heineken – bottled –resulted in claims that the James Bond franchise had sold out iconic features which define the main character in favour of a larger budget. Even Skyfall’s Daniel Craig described the deal with Heineken as “unfortunate”.

Alongside the overall decline in positively endorsed placements, a new trend in contemporary product placement is faux product placement. This is where products are created as part of the diegetic world of the film and then produced in reality for sale. An early example is that of Wonka Bars, a range of confectionary released alongside Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Since then this faux product placement has been happening more often, with products such as The Simpsons’ (1989-present) Duff Beer or Forrest Gump’s (1994) Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. line of restaurants. This seems a very advantageous method of production as you can already gauge an audience’s interest in a product without the cost and risk of releasing it. Once an interest has been shown for a product, companies are provided with a clear business opportunity to exploit. Another notable example of this is Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, which after becoming popular from the Harry Potter franchise (2001-2011) was turned into a real product by Jelly Belly. This faux product placement although seeming logical, cost-effective and low risk on paper however, has not always been as successful in practice. Despite Bertie Bott’s Every Flavoured Beans appearing popular, the product is only sold in a few select stores in America and on the internet. Similarly, Duff Beer although sold internationally, does not provide the profit margins that most retailers that require. Curiously, the only two uses of faux-product placements that have been successful are the first two to have used this method; Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Wonka Bars, all other ‘faux’ products rely heavily on the internet to retail their products, such as The Office’s (2001-2003) Dunder Mifflin paper.

Although product placement is as old as the cinema itself, the increasing popularity of DVR, the internet and ad blocking services have all resulted in a declining audience for advertisers, leading to an increase of product placement in contemporary cinema as it becomes one of the rare mediums where adverts cannot be avoided. Some argue that including familiar products adds to the realism of a film’s mise-en-scene and in many cases provides the funding the film needs in order to be made. However, its ever presence in the contemporary cinema often provokes negative reactions in audiences who see it as insulting and ‘selling out’. This frustration may lead to further innovation. For example, new forms of product placement are exploring interactive modes. This type of product placement has only been used before with television streaming from companies such as Shoshmosis, whereby hovering over and clicking on a selected product in the show, the viewer is taken to product’s webpage. This is also useful for advertisers as it can track how many clicks and buys products achieve. Although this has only been reserved for TV shows websites such as thus far, it is likely that with the ever increasing value and size of the product placement market, this could soon be brought to film streaming sites such as Netflix, leading to a new era of product-placement led advertising.


Gutnik, Lilia et al (2007). “New Trends in Product Placement.” Strategic Computing and Communications Technology (2007). Print.

Holpuch, Amanda. “Budweiser Wants Off This Flight: When Product Placement Goes Bad.” The Guardian, 6 Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Mar. 2014.

Homer, Pamela. “Product Placements: The Impact of Placement Type and Repetition on Attitude.” Journal of Advertising, 38 3 (2009): 21-31. Print.

Karr, Douglas. “Infographic: The Growing Product Placement Industry.” Marketing Tech Blog. 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2014.

Walton, Alex. “The Evolution of Product Placement in Film.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. 1 1 (2010). Print.

Galician, Mary-Lou. Handbook of Product Placement in the Mass Media: New Strategies in Marketing Theory, Practice, Trends, and Ethics. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Written by Ellie Pacter (2014), Queen Mary, University of London.

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Copyright © 2014 Ellie Pacter/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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