The Good, the Bad and the Hershey’s – The Ins and Outs of Product Placement
Reverse Product Placement
The makers of Forrest Gump are so good at product placement, they even managed to advertise a product that didn’t exist yet. At the end of the film, Gump is the owner of the massively popular and fictional Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Obviously there was no product to sell, but that didn’t deter the producers at Paramount, who, through their marketing arm, Viacom, invested in creating real Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurants. There are currently thirty-two of them internationally, including one in Times Square; the entire concept behind creating this chain is so meta that when I attempt to comprehend it, I’m pretty sure I’m making this face.
Creating a chain of restaurants is an extreme example of this form of reverse product placement, when a fictional brand is sold in the real world. It’s more common for smaller products like the Haribo owned Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans from the Harry Potter franchise, or Nestle’s brand of official Wonka confectionery to be created. It can also be applied as a temporary promotional tie-in like for The Simpsons Movie, where 7-Eleven changed twelve of their stores to resemble Kwik-E-Marts which were stocked full of licensed Simpsons product, including Krusty-O’s and Buzz cola.
The promotion was a success for both 7-Eleven and The Simpsons. The stores involved found their daily sales on average up by 30%, and 7-Eleven also aligned themselves fully with the massively successful and popular Simpsons brand. The success of the 7-Eleven promotion is down to what’s been described as giving the consumer a “brand experience.” Interactivity is key to this kind of promotion’s success; the consumer’s interest in the Simpsons brand moved beyond only seeing the world on the TV, with this gimmick allowing a palpable and ingrained relationship between the brand and consumer. The advertisers hope that this sort of interactive experience will further strengthen the consumer’s loyalty and increase their interest in the Simpsons brand, before the cinematic debut.
Negative Product Placement
Sometimes brands will get cold feet and opt against showing their products in certain situations that may align them with a negative subject matter. In Slumdog Millionaire, both Mercedes and Coca-Cola had their logos CGI’d out of the finished film.
Danny Boyle said that both companies were contacted after the film was completed, but that they refused the use of their brands, as they didn’t want their products shown within the film’s slum setting. Boyle added: “So we ended up paying tens of thousands of pounds painting out these symbols, which are meant to unite the world, aren’t they?” It’s a fair point, but I’m pretty sure neither Coke nor Mercedes would have given a shit if they’d knowm beforehand that Slumdog Millionaire was going to go on and win eight Oscars.
More commonly, however, negative product placement is used effectively by brands. The average viewer knows what product placement is; they cringe at Will Smith fawning over his Converse, and branding companies have implemented instances of negative product placement so that they appear more human, understanding and relatable to their consumers. Essentially, negative product placement allows the sponsor to show that they understand as well as the audience how cynical and invasive brands have become on screen, while simultaneously still hawking their own products.
So Gucci, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are all name checked, and it’s a pretty damning assessment by the two protagonists—not only are the companies criticized, but their entire advertising strategies are completely mocked, which to me seems like it would be a much bigger concern than showing a Coke bottle in a Mumbai slum. But Gucci allowed this, and probably paid for the privilege. Fight Club is full to the brim with negative product placement: VW Beetles are smashed, Apple Stores destroyed and Ikea appears to be the root of all evil. So why did these companies allow it? It really comes down to star appeal. Before Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle was relatively unknown, as were his actors; his previous film Sunshine was a box-office bomb, raking in roughly $35 million with a $40 million budget. Essentially, he wasn’t worth the risk. Fight Club, on the other hand, reunited Fincher and Pitt; their previous film Se7en was critically praised, but, more importantly to the brands, the seventh highest grossing film in 1995. Fincher was being touted as the next Superstar director, and Pitt had become one if the most bankable actors in Hollywood. Fight Club had all the makings to become a hugely successful film; the brands involved perhaps didn’t know what to expect from the film, but they were pretty certain a lot of people were going to see it. In the end, however, Fight Club had a pretty modest theatrical run, with Roger Ebert awarding it two stars, stating that: “Fight Club itself does not advocate Durden’s philosophy. It is a warning against it, I guess; one critic I like says it makes ‘a telling point about the bestial nature of man and what can happen when the numbing effects of day-to-day drudgery cause people to go a little crazy.’ I think it’s the numbing effects of movies like this that cause people to go to a little crazy. Although sophisticates will be able to rationalize the movie as an argument against the behavior it shows, my guess is that audience will like the behavior but not the argument.”