You’re in the cinema, watching a well-reviewed film. It’s very good indeed. All of a sudden, the main character takes a very obvious swig from the now universally-recognisable Starbucks cup. Cue exasperated sighs from the audience. That’s product placement, folks, and it’s not always as subtle as it likes to think it is.
Product placement is not a modern invention – its history stretches back to the birth of the film industry. However, it was in the 1980s when it began to grow into the advertising force it is today.
So how did product placement become so ubiquitous? Lecturer in the MA in Film and Television at DCU, Dr Roddy Flynn, believes that product placement has become one of the most practical ways to fund a film or TV show. It has always been largely unregulated in the USA, with 5% of spending on advertising devoted to product placement. The British communications regulator, Ofcom, recently permitted product placement in UK films and television shows. Product placement is officially A-OK, so the reasoning is: why not?
Even though product placement is all around us, it’s hard to believe it could be effective. Who in their right minds would rush out to buy a car they saw in a James Bond film? According to Dr Flynn, quite a few people would. He points out that one car featured in “GoldenEye” starring Pierce Brosnan enjoyed a massive spike in sales after the film hit cinemas.
Product placement lures in even those of us who can’t afford to throw away money on fancy motors. After Elliott cajoled E.T. out of the forest with Reese’s Pieces in the 1982 classic, Hershey’s reported that sales of the candy jumped by 65%. It’s easy to see then why so many films and TV shows jump on the bandwagon – product placement works.
However, Dr Flynn believes that reliance on product placement for funding could grow to such an extent that it could dictate what films and TV shows are produced. It wouldn’t do to see an Apple laptop sitting on a table during a scene in Jane Austen adaptation, would it? Certainly not. Choosing to make a period film cuts out a serious chunk of possible funding from product placement, funding which is essential in this economic climate. This means that more films like “The King’s Speech”, the big winner at this year’s Oscars, or even films set as recently as the 1970s, may not be made. Not exactly a comforting thought for film-lovers.
If you thought you could escape product placement by tuning in to some good old Irish TV, you’d be mistaken. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland recently announced their decision to allow paid product placement to be featured on Irish programmes, which will come into effect in May this year. Yes, this means that the characters of Fair City will be within their rights to sip conspicuously from cans of Coca-Cola while waving their iPhones in your face. Why anyone would want to buy anything Fair City is hawking is another question for another day.
There is really no escape from product placement. Everywhere you look, someone is trying to sell you something. It’s just part and parcel of the world we live in, and it’s not going to change. Nevertheless, I can’t help but agree with legendary director David Lynch’s stance on product placement: “Bullshit. Total fucking bullshit.”