The Good, the Bad and the Hershey’s – The Ins and Outs of Product Placement

A lot of people see ‘product placement’ as a dirty term, where faceless advertising companies diminish all artistic merit from film and instead use them as advertisements to hawk their branded wares to the public. We’ve all seen it; sometimes it can be subtle and sometimes blatant, like Nintendo’s promotion in the 1989 film The Wizard, which created my lifelong unfulfilled need for a Power Glove. I never knew one kid who actually owned a Power Glove, but the idea that out there somewhere a child sat at Christmas of 1989 and unwrapped a brand new one still gives me a slight pang of jealousy. This probably says more about my own stilted emotional growth, but I like to think it shows how intoxicating product placement can actually be. Brands and products are shown in movies in such an awe-inspiring and positive light that it’s only natural that we want in on them too, especially as children. On the surface, product placement appears to be a modern invention created by cynical advertising companies attempting to covertly reach our consumer driven society, but it’s really been here for a long, long time.

The first use of product placement was in 1920 with the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle film The Garage. The film used its setting and its high profile star Arbuckle to advertise Red Crown Gasoline; the movie’s star appeal sold both the film and product to the audience. It was this film that really made the connection between star appeal and the potential for advertising sales, which would grow side-by-side within the development of mainstream cinema. In 1927, Wings, the first film to ever win the Academy Award for best picture, featured a scene with a Hershey’s chocolate bar. Wings wasn’t just an award winner, but also one of the highest grossing films of the decade, allowing Hershey’s to advertise to every one of the film’s viewers. However, it really wasn’t until the 1980s when product placement really came into its own with Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and again Hershey’s were leading the charge.

At the beginning of the film, there’s a scene when Elliott coaxes out the alien using Reese’s Pieces as bait. In the script, this was originally written to be M&M’s, but after they pulled out, Hershey’s, paying an estimated $1 million, filled in instead. E.T. went on to become the highest grossing film of the 1980s, and this in turn saw Hershey’s sales of Reese’s Piece’s rise 65% in the year after the films release. E.T. didn’t just promote Hershey’s, it really became a watershed for product placement due to the sheer amount of brands shown throughout the film. Looking at Jaws, released just seven years before E.T. and the second-highest grossing film of the 70s, as well as the film that pretty much created Event cinema, it had nine separate instances of product placement showing seven unique brands. E.T., on the other hand, showed in total 21 different brands that were incorporated within the 29 instances of product placement throughout the film. A Spielberg movie in general is a safe investment for a brand; the film will inevitably gross highly and will commonly be a PG-13, allowing the largest potential amount of consumers. 25% of Minority Report’s $102 million budget was reportedly provided through product placement alone, including Nokia paying $2 million to design the futuristic phones and Lexus with a $5 million investment to design Tom Cruise’s car. Minority Report held the record for the amount of cash earned solely through this form of advertising, but this is soon to be eclipsed by the new Bond film. The producers of the upcoming Bond 23 have recently announced that one-third of its costs would come directly from product advertising, which could be roughly in excess of $45 million. So, it’s safe to say that product placement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s not just about some greedy executive pawing after a few dollars; it has now really become a viable and secure way of fleshing out a huge chuck of a film’s budget.

The Three Forms of Product Placement

Product placement (or under its recent title of ‘embedded advertising’) is usually seen as a blanket term, but there are specifically three separate ways in which a brand can become embedded within a film.

  • Screen placement: when the brand is seen in either the foreground or background of a shot, like the use of Reese’s Pieces in E.T.
  • Script placement: when one character openly names the brand in the film’s dialogue, such as Marty McFly ordering a Pepsi in Back to the Future.
  • Plot placement (low intensity): the brand has some, usually small, relation with the film’s plot, e.g. in Demolition Man, Taco Bell being named as the only restaurant franchise in future; the main characters go there and eventually there’s a massive fight next to it. Plot placement (high intensity): when the product is frequently associated with the lead character or central storyline—Bond’s watch, car or phone, or the Delorean in Back to the Future.

Getting all three placements in one scene is obviously the coveted holy trinity for any brand; having their product seen, spoken about and intertwined within the film’s characterization and/or narrative development is ultimately the best way for maximum exposure.

Forrest Gump is a master class in product placement. The entire film’s plot revolves around Gump’s involvement with huge cultural events: Gump teaches Elvis to dance, inspires John Lennon to write “Imagine,” uncovers the Watergate scandal, and tons more. So, with the film lending itself to so many cultural significant moments, when Gump is involved with branded products, like his cross-country run for “2 months, 14 days and 16 hours” while wearing his trusty footwear (Nike) or his investment in a “fruit company” (Apple), it feels natural to the tone of movie. With the film dealing 100% in nostalgia, the products fit seamlessly in both grounding the film in the time period and allowing them to be a part of Gump’s story. However, when a film attempts to use this type of high intensity product placement without it feeling organic to the setting, tone or plot, it becomes too apparent to the audience and fails. In I, Robot, Will Smith’s character is a technophobe—he hates all modern appliances, especially the robots. The makers of the film choose to highlight this with Smith buying a pair of Converse All Stars at the beginning of the film. So Smith’s character’s a Luddite, but it’s not like everyone else in the film is wearing rocketboots or anything; they’ve just got really normal non-futuristic shoes on, and Smith wearing Converse isn’t a succinct way to highlight the character’s technophobia. Converse just paid the most. Whereas the products in Forrest Gump maintain consistency with the nostalgic tone of the narrative and interact naturally with the central character’s journey, the ones in I, Robot don’t; it just looks like Will Smith is taking timeouts throughout to appear in a Converse advertising campaign, which essentially he is.


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Sean was born and continues to live in Edinburgh, Scotland. He spends his spare time watching terrible films and then complaining about them to anyone present, regardless of their interest.

You can reach Sean via email, he doesn't have time for Twitter.

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