Strategic Computing and Communications Technology New Trends in Product Placement

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Strategic Computing and Communications Technology

New Trends in Product Placement

Lilia Gutnik, Tom Huang, Jill Blue Lin, Ted Schmidt

Spring 2007


The traditional broadcast television advertising model is based on the 30-second ad that regularly interrupts TV shows. Most viewers find these ads boring and intrusive, but until recently were forced to endure them in order to watch the show. With the advent of digital video recording (DVR) and the growing popularity of TiVo, television viewers are no longer a passive audience. DVR technology allows viewers to fast-forward or skip ads. According to a study done by the major television networks in 2005, 90% of viewers surveyed said they skipped all or most of the commercials. In addition, one of the most desirable demographics (18-34 year old males) are moving away from television all together, and spending more time using more interactive forms of media, such as video games. The peak time of day for game console usage coincides directly with primetime network programming, much to the chagrin of network executives as well as advertisers.

Attempting to fight the loss of a passive audience, in 2001 a group of 28 plaintiffs including Disney, Paramount Pictures, ABC, NBC, CBS, and others sued SonicBlue, a former TiVo competitor. They claimed that the company's commercial-skipping technology in ReplayTV constituted "contributory and vicarious infringement of plaintiff's copyrights." As part of the lawsuit Paramount v. SonicBlue, the television studios demanded that SonicBlue collect and report to the studios information on how its customers copied, stored, shared, and viewed the broadcasts using ad-skipping. Paramount v. SonicBlue was ultimately decided in favor of consumers. As DVR becomes more widely used, an increasing number of viewers choose to skip the 30-second ad.

Faced with a diminished passive audience, advertisers have had to revise their marketing strategies and find other ways of promoting their products. Advertisers have turned to product placement. Product placement is a promotional tactic where a real commercial product is used in fictional or non-fictional media in order to increase consumer interest in the product. Today, product placements appear in TV shows, films, video games, and new mediums such as the online virtual world Second Life. New technologies are being developed that facilitate tagging and linking of products on consumer-generated media sites such as YouTube. By analyzing product placement in different mediums, this report aims at comparing and contrasting the advertising and value-creation models across different media types, and discusses the impacts some new technologies will have on shaping the future of product placement.


Figure 1: 30-second ad advertising model

The advertising model based on the traditional 30-second ad (Figure 1) is centered on the broadcasters, which includes TV networks, cable and satellite service providers. A broadcaster buys the airing rights for different TV shows from production studios, and then airs the shows for consumers. To make a profit, the broadcaster sells ad spots to advertisers or ad agencies. The cost for the ad spot varies according to the number of viewers (determined by Nielsen ratings) and the airing time (prime time costs the most). During the 2005-2006 television season, the cost of a 30-second ad spot in the top-10 shows ranged from $705,000 (American Idol) to $293,000 (Two and A Half Men). In this model, the broadcaster sells all the ad spots, and gets all of the advertising revenue. The only revenue source for the content creators, or the production studios, is the licensing fees broadcasters pay for the rights to air their shows.

Figure 2: Product Placement Advertising Model

In the product placement advertising model (Figure 2), before a show is even completed, the production studio can sell placement spots either through an ad agency/ product placement agency or by reaching advertisers directly. In exchange, the studio may get a placement fee, bartered goods (i.e. the producer gets a free car), or the right to use the product in the show, saving some production costs. In this model, broadcasters do not receive any revenue from product placement. Advertising revenue goes only to production studios.

Figure 3: The Influence of Technology: Digital TV and Virtual Product Placement

The advertising model for Virtual Product Placement (Figure 3) gives control of advertising revenue back to the broadcasters. Production studios shoot the shows and include placement spots. Broadcasters license the shows, sell the placement spots to advertisers, and then use post-production techniques to populate the placement spots with content. Virtual product placement is currently common on billboards at sporting events.



Before the advent of movies and television, soap opera radio broadcasts comprised a large part of popular entertainment. These broadcasts were called “soap operas” because they often mentioned various soap products within the storyline in exchange for financial support from their household cleaning manufacturing sponsors, including Proctor and Gamble. In the 1890’s, when the first films were released, the Lumiere brothers heavily incorporated Lever Sunlight Soap into their films because of their strong business association with a Lever publicist Although product placement has been a part of popular entertainment from the very beginning, it did not become a large part of advertising strategy until the 1980’s.


In 1982, the Steven Spielberg blockbuster E.T. included a scene in which the alien character was coaxed out of hiding with Reese's Pieces, a new candy introduced by Hershey. Hershey did not directly pay Universal Pictures for the product placement, but instead agreed to sponsor $1 million worth of advertising for the film. Hershey’s investment more than paid off: E.T. was immensely successful, and sales of Reese’s Pieces increased by 80%. This success sparked a shift in the film industry's revenue models, as major corporations looked to replicate this advertising success with their own products and brands. Other notable product placements in films include Red Stripe in The Firm. Within a month of the film's release, sales of the Jamaican beer had increased by more than 50% in the U.S., and Guinness Brewing Worldwide acquired a majority stake in the brewery just a few weeks later for $62 million. In another example, the prominence of Ray Ban sunglasses in Men In Black was the first major instance of using actors’ faces as valuable advertising real-estate.

Figure 4: Example of Product Placement – Ray Ban in Men In Black

As with film, heavy use of product placement in television was inspired by one significant moment. In an episode of Survivor 2000, a popular reality television show, the prize for one of the challenges was a bag of Doritos and a Mountain Dew. This episode was so successful in increasing sales of Doritos and Mountain Dew that since then, product placements have become a main part of the prize winnings in several reality shows including The Apprentice, America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, Project Runway, and of course, Survivor.

Product placement is used in traditionally scripted shows as well, including King of Queens, The Sopranos, and Alias. In one episode of Seinfeld, Junior Mints are a main part of the plot. While observing an operation on Elaine’s ex-boyfriend, Jerry and Kramer fuss over a box of Junior Mints, and as a result drop a mint into the patient’s body. This is an example of a sophisticated use of product placement. Instead of merely showing the characters using the product, the writers fold Junior Mints into the wry humor of the show.

Figure 5: Example of Product Placement – Junior Mints in Seinfield

In the 2004-2005 television season, over 100,000 product placements were embedded in the broadcast networks alone: ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN, and the WB. The product placement market is growing rapidly; the value of the industry in 2005 is estimated at $4.24 billion. This figure includes barter, where the use of the product is the payment for the placement, and gratis, where the product's placement enriches the storyline or amplifies the character's profile.













$2.39 billion

$3.13 billion

$4.24 billion

Figure 6: Product Placement Market (in US billions)

Advantages and Disadvantages

Product placement is advantageous to advertisers in several ways. Viewers cannot bypass the advertising if it is integrated into the media; they would have to skip the whole thing. If it is done well, it may not be noticeable to the viewer, and may actually add to the experience. With the decline of the efficacy of the 30-second ad, product placement gives advertisers more opportunities for promoting their goods.

With the increase in use of product placement, analysts fear that consumers will develop ad-blindness, becoming so accustomed to ads that they stop noticing them. When an ad is repeated too often, people adapt to their presence and filter them out of their vision.

As discussed previously, the movie E.T. and Reese’s pieces was an example of successful product placement. The use of a recognizable candy added to the appeal of the story. However, poor use of product placement can compromise the integrity of the story. The latest James Bond movie Casino Royale, has been lambasted in the movie for being too much like “one long commercial.” Although Casino Royale featured less than half the number of product placements used in other movies released at the same time, something about the ways the products were featured led to ad-resentment; the audience to felt like they were being cheated and the whole movie was an ad.

Figure 7: Example of Unsuccessful Product Placement – Casino Royale
The television show Grey's Anatomy recognizes this concern and does a superb job with product placement. Products are not highlighted, but instead function as accessories worn by the show’s appealing characters. In addition to clothing and accessories, Grey's Anatomy also features music from emerging artists. Complementary websites such as allow fans of the show to purchase the jeans Meredith Grey, the title character, was wearing, or to download the track they just heard in the show.

The best examples of product placement are seamlessly woven into the narrative. However, when it's not done well, product placement can seem forced and obvious, detracting from the credibility and quality of the experience. Poor product placement can result in viewer fatigue with too much advertising


The future of product placement in TV, films and video is being shaped by new technologies such as digital television (DTV), digital video recording (DVR), and linking of products seen on screen (product linking). The movement from analog to digital systems will allow broadcasters to add interactivity to their shows. Using only the TV, viewers will be able to find more information about a product featured in a show, without having to interrupt their viewing experience.

In 2005, United Virtualities introduced a product-linking service called Shoshmosis, which adds a Flash movie layer to any streaming video format. The Flash layer adds interactivity to the video, allowing users to roll over or click on elements within the video to view more information. As an added benefit for advertisers, Shoshmosis also tracks viewers’ click-through rates.

Figure 8: Example of Product Linking – Friends: roll over and find out more information about a dress
In addition, studios are increasingly using computer-generated imagery (CGI) to add products to a TV show or movie after it has already been produced and edited. Post-production placement, or Virtual Product Placement allows studios to sell the same “placement spots” to multiple advertisers, and then create different versions showcasing the different products. In addition, placement spots can be customized to suit local needs. For example, a milk carton in a TV show can display different brands for local airings of the show.



Traditionally, advertisers have not paid video game makers for product placement. At best, the deals were cross-promotion opportunities, and in some cases the game makers actually paid license fees to use likenesses of real products in order to make their games more realistic. In an early controversial example of product placement in games, in 1990 a group of doctors trying to reduce teen-age smoking was outraged to find billboard signs with Marlboro and Budweiser logos in video arcade games. Sega, the maker of the games, explained that the inclusion of the logos was an attempt to create a real-life situation. Dave Rosen, co-chairman of Sega’s board, stated, “…there is absolutely no form of paid or intentional advertising displayed in any of Sega’s arcade or consumer video games.” Philip Morris and Anheuser Busch both confirmed that they had not authorized use of their logos, and asked Sega to remove the logos from their games.


Today, advertisers are much more interested in the $24 billion video game industry. Spending on in-game product placement was estimated at $300 million this year, with projections of $1 billion in spending by 2010. Nielsen ratings in 2003 showed a 7% decline in television viewing among 18 to 34 year-old males. This decline was directly attributed to the growing popularity of video games. 66% of males 18-34 own at least one game console, as do 80% of males ages 12-17. In 2006, 62.3 million game consoles were sold. Market researchers anticipate that this number will grow by an additional 26% in 2007. Currently, there are over 148 million gamers. As gamers age, become parents and continue to play games, older demographics become more highly represented while increasing the overall reach of the video game medium.

Figure 9: Household console penetration as a % of TV-owning households, broken down by demographic
In addition to the growing numbers, the gaming population is extremely attractive to advertisers for several reasons. Gamers have above-average household incomes. Game consoles are becoming “digital hubs” in the living room, which will result in greater advertising exposure for all members of the household. Finally, gamers seem to respond positively to product placement. In one study, 70% of gamers surveyed considered product placement a positive feature that increased the realism of the game. Studies have also shown that short-term recall rate of brand names in video games is upwards of 40%, with sports games taking the lead with a 54% brand recall rate. This makes video game product placement one of the most effective ways to create consumer awareness.

Product placement in video games can range in degree of interactivity. Game streetscapes can contain billboards with advertisements for products. Products can also be woven into the story of a game. In the popular Everquest II, players can order a pizza from the nearest Pizza Hut from within the game. In Ubisoft’s CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder, Visa’s fraud protection service alerts players that a credit card has just been stolen. The dynamic nature of video games also allows for rotating advertisements; this may decrease ad-blindness, as well as allow for the inclusion of a larger number of ads. In Ubisoft’s And 1 Streetball, an in-game billboard rotates advertising content each time the game is played.

As Internet connectivity has become a standard feature in video game consoles, ads no longer need to be loaded onto the game before it ships; ads can be loaded and updated at any time. This allows game studios to sell ad space for selected periods of time, similar to how traditional television ads are sold or how the future virtual product placement spots will be sold. This also allows advertisers to commit to purchasing ad space only once the game has been proven to be successful, minimizing the lock-in effect and preventing a potential hold-up. Internet connectivity also allows for greater user tracking. Nielsen, the renowned television research company, has partnered with Chrysler and Activision to track the effectiveness of Chrysler's Jeep placements in Tony Hawk's Underground 2. “Tags” on the Jeeps in the game allow Nielsen to count each time a Jeep appears on the screen or is used by a player. The results allow Nielsen to generate extremely accurate impression statistics, which will result in more accurate pricing for future ad placements.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The cost of creating games has risen substantially due to rising gamer expectations and the increased complexity of console technology. Blockbuster titles from big-name publishers have seen production costs increase over 100% from the previous generation of consoles, with some games costing over $60 million and taking over four years to produce. However, the price users pay for games has remained fairly constant at $50-$60 per game for nearly a decade. As a result, game studios have come to rely on product placement and in-game advertising to subsidize their development costs and increase profits.

However, as product placement in games becomes ubiquitous, game studios risk losing the good will of gamers. As discussed previously, 70% of gamers currently think the use of actual products adds to the realism of games; this number is likely to drop as games become more and more saturated with advertising.


Gamer fatigue with advertising may already be on the rise. In 2002, EA (Electronic Arts) struck a deal with McDonald's to include its products in the then-popular game Sims Online. The deal allowed Sims players to open their own McDonald's kiosks, and then improve their game stats by consuming McDonald's products. This development was not received well by the gaming community. Columnist Tony Walsh wrote an article for online magazine (now defunct) that called for Sims players to protest and boycott McDonald's within Sims Online. Among other things, he encouraged players to "order and consume virtual McD's food, then use The Sims Online's 'expressive gestures' in creative ways. Lie down and play dead. Emote the vomiting, sickness, or fatigue that might overcome you after eating a real life McNugget." Although Walsh never actually coordinated this online protest, his article was distributed widely, and resulted in bad publicity for both EA and McDonalds.

As games become more immersive and realistic, opportunities for effective product placement will continue to increase. However, as with film and TV, in order to attract the increasingly ad-savvy and ad-weary gamer, successful product placements need to be woven into the storyline, so that they enhance instead of detract from the game.


Sales of games for mobile devices have risen 61% in the last year. The current user base is about 17.4 million. With two-thirds of mobile games being purchased by women, mobile games are likely to be another opportunity for advertisers. Product placement in mobile games is still in its infancy, with only one title – EA’s Nascar 07 – featuring in-game advertising. However, EA, the biggest player in mobile gaming, is planning to expand its in-game advertising. Smaller players are likely to follow suit.


While traditional product placement refers to integrating a real brand into a fictional environment, reverse product placement refers to creating a fictional brand in a fictional environment and then releasing it into the real world. In an early example of reverse product placement, the restaurant chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. was brought to life through its association with the film Forrest Gump. In another example, Cap Candy, a division of Hasbro, created Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans, a candy first created in the Harry Potter books. In these examples, fictional products were so popular with viewers that companies decided to create real-life versions.

Reverse product placement can also be used to generate buzz about a product before its launch. American Apparel, a clothing retailer, launched a line of jeans in the virtual world Second Life several months before launching them in its real-world stores. Last year, Starwood Hotels and Resorts launched a sub-brand called Aloft in Second Life shortly before it appeared in the real world.

Since it is often much less expensive to release a fictional product than to manufacture an actual product, reverse product placement may someday be used to gauge the public’s interest in a proposed new product. Companies may release products online, with plans to create the real versions contingent on public reaction to the online version.


Product linking or “plinking” is the adding of a link to a product to a visible object within a video. Entertainment Media Works (EMW), a company that provides product placement business solutions, is currently developing a tool for plinking product placements in consumer-generated media. Plinking will allow users to freeze and tag an area in a video where a product is located. Once the area has been tagged, the area will be clickable throughout the runtime of the video, and linked to the product’s e-commerce page. EMW is planning a revenue-sharing model that divides revenue among the host site, the video creator, and the content tagger. Plinking may be one of the ways sites like YouTube can generate revenue.


The growing popularity of the Internet and video games has decreased the television-viewing audience, especially in the desirable demographic of 18-35 year old males. In addition, more and more viewers are using TiVo to skip ads. The advertising industry has responded by following viewers onto the Internet and into the video games. To combat ad-skipping, the industry is advertising by placing products directly into movies and films. Advertisers use both the 30-second ad and product placement as part of a comprehensive marketing strategy to reach more viewers.

Even with the growing prevalence of product placement, the 30-second ad is still here to stay. While 90% of TiVo subscribers said they skipped ads, 58% said they paid attention to the commercials as they fast-forwarded, and 53% said they went back to watch an ad that interested them. One possible solution is for advertisers to create ads that are interesting to watch even in fast-forward mode. As the importance of the 30-second ad diminishes, its price is likely to come down.


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