Product Placement in Film Industry

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As a journalist with an emphasis in strategic communication, I wanted to direct my research paper on a topic that would be relevant towards my major. Hollywood films were not only a means of escapism for consumers of the Great Depression, but motion pictures also created trends that society would imitate in their everyday lives. The magicians behind this magic brought speculation to my mind; there were more people involved with positioning products in Hollywood movies than just the directors, producers, and set crew. This era was a development of product placement and exploitation techniques from a copious number of marketers from business corporations. In this paper, I will argue how the 1920-1930’s era sparked the emergence of product placement in Hollywood films.

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The term ‘product placement’ essentially describes the integration of a product or brand into a film or televised series. This may feature a logo, a brand name, a product or even its packaging. Product placements now pervade motion pictures and television worldwide, especially in the United States. From the Pepsi cups displayed on the judges’ table during The X Factor, to the beautiful Chevrolet Camaro that zooms across the scenes of Transformers. Yet, studies show that advertisers built up this sub-business way before the success of the 1982 film, E.T., when the extraterrestrial followed a trail of Reese’s Pieces to his new home.

Though it may seem that product placement in film is a relatively new way of advertising products, this movement is dated as early as the mid 1890’s. Segrave (2004) suggests that in the early days of the industry, the studios were not heavily involved in advertising because there was not very much return on investment.

However, as the industry grew, members of motion pictures and the business world began to notice the cinema as a captive medium for audience viewers. It was not necessarily the means to place the brand’s name in cinemas, but its products. They wanted to benefit from accessories, vehicles, services and the quid pro quo that allowed their products to appear onscreen.

Newell, Salmon, and Chang (2006), provide evidence that the birth of product placement originates back to 1896, when pioneering Lumiére brothers, two of world’s first film makers, included appearances of Lever Brother’s Sunlight Soap in many of their short films, the first being Washing Day in Switzerland. The notion was based on an agreement between the brothers and François-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke, a Swiss businessmen who was associated with the distribution of the U.K. soap manufactures white simultaneously producing the movie. One of the scenes in the movie includes two cases of Lever Brothers’ soap prominently placed in front of two women washing clothes (Newell, Salmon, & Chang, 2006). While the Lumière brothers were the makers behind the first product placement, Thomas Edison turned it into a feasible part of the film business, when he used branded rail lines and cigarettes in his film. (Newell, Salmon, & Chang, 2006)

However, it was not until the 1930’s when placing products in motion pictures truly blossomed. There was a definable impact that film could be used to persuade audiences without direct advertising attempts. For movie makers, it was also a method of reducing the cost of production through the use of free products, while the manufacture received product exposure at no cost. Film actors, who were contracted to the studios, were also sought out to become spokesmen for brands. Although the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) passed a decree prohibiting any sort of action, Lucky Strike, Lux, Coca-Cola and others had little opposition in getting big names from the studios because of the widespread publicity offered. (Segrave, 2004)

A major industry who felt product placement could not only persuade an audience, but change their opinions, were tobacco companies. Since the 1930’s, tobacco companies have purposely cultivated relationships with Hollywood movie makers to suppress negative portrayals of smoking in motion pictures. Thus, tobacco companies supplied free cigarettes to multiple A-list actors in order to encourage publicity and brand exposure and smoking on camera. Most tobacco companies even paid in cash to place their brands in specific movies without audience recognition.

With product placement came another another rational that sparked in the 1930’s called tie-ups or tie-ins. This was a cross promotional arrangement between outside manufacturers and movie makers in which films would feature on-screen product appearances and allow star endorsements. In return, the manufactures would create advertisements to promote the film. The use of tie-ups soon became standardized. The Walter E. Kline Agency provided studio executives with long lists of products available for on screen placement including goods from Remington, IBM, and General Electric for a small fee. (Newell, Salmon, & Chang, 2006) Thus, the motion picture industry benefited from increased ticket sales due to enhanced advertising for their pictures while manufacturers obtained screen exposure for their products and a marketing edge by connecting their products to celebrities on and off the camera. For example, in 1932, The General Cigar Company budgeted 250,000 dollars worth of advertising to promote lead actor, Paul Muni, smoking White Owl Cigars in the the film Scarface, even though he smoked a different brand on screen.

According to Segrave (2004) Every foot of film exported, brought a return of $1 in stimulated trade. People seeing American product or trends in pictures demanded their local merchants stock those products for them. This was a movement outside the nation. For example, an automobile dealer in a town in Brazil reported his sales of an American-made car had increased from four-to-five cars a month to four-to-five a day from motion picture exposure. Architects in Argentina adapted the Hollywood bungalow housing type and sewing machines were introduced into Smyrna because of the influence of U.S. motion pictures. With 115 million people attending the cinema weekly in the United States in a total of 22,000 theaters nationwide, it is apparent that movies had been responsible for an increase in demand for American manufactured products.

Trade follows the film was a concept that kept alive during this period. Will H. Hays, first president of the president of the MPPDA, declared that the motion picture “is the greatest existing agency for promoting the sales of American-made products throughout the world.” As a result, increased demand depended “the future prosperity” of the United States. (Segrave, 2004) In a time where the economy was at its lowest point, the practice provided a justifiable opportunity. Free merchandise could help aid the financial budgets for the studios who were losing profit. In 1933, MGM Studios signed at 500,000 dollar contract with Coca-Cola in exchange for blatantly placing the company’s products on screen, celebrity appearance in print advertisements as well as endorsements for promotional tours. As a result, revenue was brought to the studios during the Great Depression while Hollywood was able to create social desires and implication to a vulnerable audience.

By the 1940s, product placement specialists who worked for public relations firms and advertising agencies quickly were deemed exploitation agents, truly making product placements or tie ups profitable for all parties. By the 1950’s and 1960’s, studios had long lists of contacts for tie-up merchandise. The sub-business exceeded expectations that by the 1970s, production companies kept warehouses stocked with brand-name props ready for on-screen use. (Newell, Salmon, & Chang, 2006). However, it wasn’t until the Reese’s Pieces placement in E.T., The Extraterrestrial (1982) that finally put the operation into spotlight and caught the audience’s attention. (Gupta and Lord, 1998) A small candy supplied by the Hershey Corporation for no cost in return to promote the film on all Reese’s Pieces advertisements. Sales of Reese’s Pieces reportedly increased by 65 percent in one month after the movie release. (Karrh, 1998) Most scholars believe this to be the highlight in the history of product placement as it marked the era of audience acceptance and positive attitude toward the revolutionary practice.

Product placement in the 1930’s formed a revolutionized theory where mass culture and communication could play a major role in the social reproduction of the capitalist society. It sparked the industrialization of cultural relics, linking movie stars and branded products in the ideal purpose of sustaining the economic support needed for capitalism to thrive during the Great Depression.This practice not only influenced society and the the economy itself, but created a transformational advertising implementation that would embellish brands and products advantageous way.

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