Brands on screen

Product placement is advertising that arrives when you least expect it. The digital revolution has made it that much more pervasive.


Have you ever walked out of the cinema with a burning desire to buy something? Or maybe wondered why your favourite television characters prefer a certain brand of cereal? This could be a result of product placement – the (in)famous marketing technique that has inspired many an internet listicle detailing its most sore-thumb moments. Despite its sometimes unwelcome intrusion into our viewing habits, product placement grew to become an $8.25 billion industry in 2012. Not bad when you consider that many such deals are arranged using a no-money-exchanged barter agreement.

And now the digital revolution has brought about a change in the nature of product placement that may see it become more ubiquitous than ever before in its colourful history.

According to Leo Kivijarv of marketing research group PQ media, branded media first appeared in creative content more than 200 years ago. As he told Communication Director: “The first known product placement occurred in Japan in 1797 when comic books included references to a tobacco shop owned by the family of the comic’s artist. It was used periodically during the 19th century, including Charles Dickens drawings in books that referenced a local pub and Guinness beer.” The first promotional placement of a product on the big screen came at one of the earliest points in cinema history when the Lumière brothers created a paid placement for Sunlight Soap called Washing Day In Switzerland.

For more than 80 years, informal agreements between companies and Hollywood studios existed, with big stars used to endorse products that were given television and film screen time.

However it was not until a film about a certain lost extraterrestrial appeared in 1982 that product placement became established practice. Hershey’s Reese’s Pieces were seen on screen as the favourite snack of E.T and, as Leo explains, sales rose dramatically: “Those who follow the candy industry estimate a run from the low end of 65 per cent to the high end of 300 per cent, although most estimate about an 85 to 120 per cent rise.”