Public relations: Make it into the movies - Once a dirty word, now product placement in major films is big business, writes Mary Cowlett

Getting the likes of Tom Cruise to drink your brand of cola, talk on your phone or drive your car may seem out of reach, but this summer’s blockbuster, Mission Impossible 2, sees him using a whole host of products placed in the movie following tie-ups between manufacturers and the production company.

Getting the likes of Tom Cruise to drink your brand of cola, talk

on your phone or drive your car may seem out of reach, but this summer’s

blockbuster, Mission Impossible 2, sees him using a whole host of

products placed in the movie following tie-ups between manufacturers and

the production company.

The film is billed as an action-packed thriller. But for firms such as

Motorola, Porsche and Audi, it is also a platform to imbue their brands

with some Hollywood gloss and glamour. For the filming of MI2, Porsche’s

product placement team in Germany provided production company Paramount

Pictures with a string of specially manufactured and modified 911

Carrera Cabriolets for Cruise’s character, US secret agent Ethan


Big budget movie projects are a major investment for brand owners, so

it’s essential to reduce the element of risk when placing products.

McDonald’s and Coca-Cola learned the hard way when they poured millions

of dollars into the 1988 box office flop, MAC and Me. Set largely in

McDonald’s over a Coke, it pushed the ’boy befriends alien’ formula too

far and became a lesson in how not to succeed at product placement.

According to John Barnard, chairman of both industry body the

Entertainment Marketing Association and New Media Group, the UK’s

largest film placement agency, there are three routes to effective

product placement. ’There are the mega-corporation sweetheart deals,

which are getting more popular because of globalisation,’ he says. These

tend to be long-term partnerships of the McDonald’s-Disney variety,

which involve big bucks.

’Then there are the product placement agencies, where you buy the

expertise, experience and contacts,’ adds Barnard. ’Thirdly, you can

deal directly with film companies, which is what tends to happen with

James Bond, but it’s very unusual and highly risky,’ he warns.

Happy marriages

Reducing the element of risk is not only a matter of choosing movies

that will score well at the box office. It is also vital to ensure that

a film matches the brand and user profile.

For instance, Kevin and Perry Go Large, which was released in the UK

last Easter, scored product placement from a range of brands, including

JVC and the Boots Company’s teen make-up range, 17. JVC lent the

production team a selection of its Boomblaster ghetto-blasters, while

Boots recognised an opportunity to get involved in the storyline and


Elizabeth Draper, head of distribution for UK independent Icon, which

distributed the film, says: ’Boots had a good understanding from the

start about what the film would be and how it fitted with their


On screen, 17 got a namecheck and its products featured in a hilarious

makeover sequence in which a gaggle of girls got dressed up to go out

clubbing. More importantly, Boots followed up with an in-store

promotion, featuring a Kevin and Perry Go Large cosmetics bag, and

co-sponsorship of the film’s UK premiere. The Boots 17 brand also gained

positive editorial coverage, generated by press releases promoting its

association with the movie.

The partnership originated from a simple product request from the

production team and was not a cash deal. But Draper adds: ’It was an

important part of the marketing plan, so if 17 had not guaranteed an

in-store promotion, we probably would have talked about paying for the

product placement.’

The problem for many organisations considering product placement is that

the technique still retains an aura of dirty money. But deals are being

struck on the back-end of a movie through the marketing budget.

Smirnoff, for example, is rumoured to have spent pounds 5m in the UK

alone promoting its product alongside the Bond movie Tomorrow Never

Dies. In the US, third parties such as Smirnoff, Omega and BMW spent

dollars 77m on marketing tied to the film.

Product placements in Bond movies tend to be a poke in the eye for

audiences, surrounded by PR hype. But according to most product

placement professionals, the best placements are more subtle.

’You are trying to sink messages into consumers’ minds subconsciously,’

says Barnard. ’If you are too obvious, the danger is that an audience

may feel it is being plugged, or just see the deal.’

Cultural icons

This lack of finesse is most startlingly displayed in films such as Back

to the Future 2, where practically every scene has a Pepsi tag. But some

brands have positively thrived and reinvented themselves through product

placement in film.

Ray-Ban, formerly owned by Bausch & Lomb and now part of Luxottica, has

consistently positioned itself as a cultural icon in movies from

Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961 through Easy Rider, The Blues Brothers

and Top Gun to 1997’s Men in Black.

In addition, products such as alcohol and cigarettes, which are legally

restricted in their advertising, face only nominal regulation by the US

Federal Trade Commission in film. Since 1945, when Joan Crawford first

poured a tot of Tennessee whiskey in Mildred Pierce, Jack Daniel’s has

optimised product placement in film to portray glamorous ’hard drinking’

messages around its brand.

But as product placement becomes big business, with tie-ins, point of

sale promotions, competitions and themed advertising, deals are very

rarely set in stone until the last minute, after the final edit.

’The viewing public tends to be aspirational and generally you are

borrowing the imagery of a movie and its stars,’ says Joe Keenan,

managing director of Production Profiles, which helped Peugeot to place

cars in the 1999 hit Notting Hill, and which has several potential deals

on the table for the forthcoming Bridget Jones’ Diary.

’But scenes can be edited out at the last minute or, for example, you

might find that a car has negative associations, such as drink-driving,’

he adds.

When it works well, product placement is a very fast, shorthand way of

communicating brand imagery in a fashionable, sexy format. But without

the experience of judging script content, the cast, the director and the

distributor, it can also be a risky business. Just ask McDonald’s and



Some of the most expensive and hard to organise location shoots centre

around air travel. Negotiating with airport authorities and individual

airlines on tight flight schedules can be a frustrating and

budget-blowing activity.

Last summer, British Airways opted to cash in on the growing number of

requests from movie makers and appointed Entertainment Marketing to

implement a pro-active approach to product placement in films.

Entertainment Marketing account director Nikki Rosenbloom says the first

six months were spent setting up the account. ’Initially, BA was quite

nervous,’ she says. ’But since then, it’s been full-steam ahead.’

Film buffs will see Concorde in Guy Ritchie’s new film, Snatch, which

stars Brad Pitt, and glimpse in-flight shots of Robson Green and a

BA-branded hostess in Blind Ambition, a feature-length TV drama due to

be screened this autumn.

But BA’s highest-profile project is Castle Rock’s Proof of Life,

starring Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. Due to hit UK screens at the start

of 2001, the film is expected to appeal to an ABC1 audience - the target

market for BA’s new Club World service. BA facilitated filming using a

Club World mock-up in an aircraft hangar and, in conjunction with BAA,

organised access to Heathrow’s terminal four. Rosenbloom says no money

has changed hands, but in return for its help, BA has secured around 20

seconds of branded film time, featuring a departure lounge, air-to-air

shots of a Boeing 747 and Club World sleeper beds.

BA advertising executive Abby McGowan says: ’As this comes from a third

party, the film and the characters are almost endorsing our brand and



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