The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

Musings over the nuisance of product placement

with 33 comments

How common is product placement in movies?

I’m asking in honesty. Usually I’m so busy wrapping my head around the movie that I don’t notice. But I assume it’s there, all the time, everywhere. And my the way I fel about it is: the less I know the better.

This week the issue was brought up to the top on my mind in a rather brutal way as I went to the pre-screening of an upcoming Swedish film.

The product placement was so blatant that even I had to pay attention. It couldn’t escape me how they forced a certain recreation park into the story, first having the protagonist appear in their sing-along-show and then making him take a stroll in the park, unable to take his eyes away from the lemurs they keep. I cringed. They could as well have tossed up a sign, saying it loud and clearly: “this movie was brought to you by…”  It bugged me no end.

Why it’s there
While it annoys me, I also know why they have to do this. Some films make a lot of money of course, but not all. Filmmakers struggle to make ends meet. The ticket sales only cover a part of the costs and they need to find other sources. Not all film concepts can be turned into plush toys, t-shirts and mouse pads for additional incomes. Every stone has to be turned in the chase for financing, so compromises are made, limits are pushed and artistic integrity is stretched thin. So we’ll end up with those scenes where the camera will rest a little bit too long on that phone or drink or computer. Because they see no choice. After all, it’s business, just like everything else.

I see the reasons. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

The only kind of product placement I can accept is the one I’m not aware of. Then, and only then, does it work as it should. If a Rolex watch in the movie can reinforce the special effects budget, it’s fine with me. I just don’t want to know.

Don’t break my immersion! Don’t make me start thinking: “oh, look, there’s an obvious piece of product placement”. Be discrete. Be manipulative. Be invisible.

Hidden advertising
Ideally product placement should resemble to the hidden snapshot advertising for Coca-Cola. Have you heard about it? I bet you have.

The concept is that the cunning marketing people put secret images into movies. The images contain messages about that you should buy their product, but they pass by so quickly that you won’t even register it in your conscious. Without your knowledge it will stick in your mind and affect your actions.

This idea, which goes under the name “subliminal advertising”, is easy to believe in.

Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed by all the advertising? Marketing is everywhere. I’ve seen claims that we’re exposed to about 3 000 messages per day. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, unless you move into some Amish like existence, and I’m not sure if even they get away from it. So it doesn’t take a lot of conspiracy thinking to assume that the advertisers play around with our minds without our knowledge. After all they have so many other tricks in their sleeves, so why not one more?

There is just this one little thing about it. It doesn’t work and it never did.

This happens to just be one of the most persistent urban legends. As a matter of fact, it has stuck so well that I had to look it up before writing this post. I needed to refresh my memory. Was this just a phoney thing or was there any truth in it?

It turned out that it actually started with a little, little grain of truth. But that grain crumbled into dust back in the 60s.

The story is that there once upon a time was a marketing researcher named James Vicary. In 1957 he presented a study where he claimed that sales of Coca Cola and popcorn among moviegoers had increased after they had been exposed to 0.03 second ads. Five years later he admitted that the study was a gimmick and he stepped away from the public scene, never to be seen again.  However this admission doesn’t prevent the idea from living on.

A better alternative
Creepy or not, I can’t let go of the idea. Couldn’t this be a better alternative to open product placement?

In the choice between having my film experience littered with unnecessary, clumsy shots of various brands or being exposed to a few hidden messages (which don’t affect me anyway, since subliminal advertising doesn’t work), the latter doesn’t sound all that bad.

My Friday night musing post is almost finished and the weekend is about to enter. May it bring us many good movies and very few cringe worthy product placement moments.

But before calling it a day I’ll bring you a drink of your choice. You can keep the brand a secret. No product placement, you know.


Written by Jessica

May 11, 2012 at 5:00 pm

33 Responses

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  1. Interesting article, and quite apt since I have just watched Goldeneye. The product placement in that movie is fairly in your face: a BMW car for about 10 seconds, a truck full of Perrier water, and close up of both 006 and 007s Omega watches!

    To be honest, I hardly notice product placement in films either. Like you say, if it’s there and can contribute to the budget fine, but don’t disrupt my enjoyment of the movie.

    Russell Betney

    May 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    • Well, to me Bond is a special case. I just expect it to be there I think. Speaking of which, do you know if this talk about switching his drink for a beer really is true? I want to believe it’s just a gimmick for the advertising. But who knows these days… THAT would be to pull it too far if you ask me.


      May 11, 2012 at 10:37 pm

      • I generally avoid gossip about films I know I’m going to see; so other than seeing headlines, I haven’t read anything about 007 Heineken-gate! I mean the man is surely allowed to drink beer, but Heineken?

        Russell Betney

        May 13, 2012 at 3:41 pm

  2. The interesting thing about The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that there was talk about how it would ruin films for you by making you more observant of all the product placement. This may have been true for a week but I went back to mostly not noticing. Sometimes it can’t be ignored but generally speaking the trend toward product placement hasn’t really bothered me.


    May 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    • I’m afraid it might have that effect on me. It was just shown on Swedish TV. I missed it, but they’ll keep it available on the web for a few more days so I hope to get around to watch it this weekend. We’ll see what I’ll make of it. I have good hopes I’ll like it since I’m really interested in the topic.


      May 11, 2012 at 10:36 pm

  3. Product placement is an interesting matter. I’m like you though, I mostly don’t notice it unless it’s fairly obvious like the Coca-Cola ads in Blade Runner or the Apple stuff in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
    Oh, and my favorite…

    Svart Noir

    May 11, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    • That cheerio placement must take the price. Great comedy! Now that you mention MI:
      For some reason I don’t mind it that much in Bond movies. It’s sort of part of the concept.


      May 11, 2012 at 10:34 pm

  4. I don’t mind seeing a product in a film if I don’t really notice it. Yet, I don’t watch a movie to see some product. That is one of the reasons why I’ve been annoyed by some of Adam Sandler’s movies lately. He is always whoring out some product whether it’s T.G.I. Friday’s in The Zookeeper that he produced or the endless amounts of product he’s schilling in that movie he did with Jennifer Aniston.

    I go to a movie to be entertained, enlightened, or see something different that could speak to me. I don’t want to be hammered in the head by products. I can see that at home on TV.

    Steven Flores

    May 11, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    • He’s especially prone to do this thing? I haven’t noticed to be honest, but again – I don’t watch a lot of Adam Sandler movies. He’s in the humor business mostly, and very few comedies amuse me, so I stay away from most of them.

      Ticket prices for movies are pretty high these days. 14 dollars for an ordinary ticket, 20 for a 3D. When you pay for something you expect the movie to be adfree. (Commercials before the movie are acceptable, while not entirely enjoyable.) They can’t both have us pay for the movies and fill them with sponsor stuff. It would be different if the admission was free.


      May 12, 2012 at 8:38 am

  5. I think i’m of the same mind, as long as it isn’t obvious i don’t care that much.


    May 12, 2012 at 12:23 am

    • When it’s obvious it just gets annoying and that doesn’t benefit anyone – not the company whose products you’re supposed to promote either. People get pissed off and will associate you with that intrusive product placement…Not cool.


      May 12, 2012 at 8:31 am

  6. I don’t mind product placement if I don’t notice it, like most people, but still I think there is something disturbing about it. It seems to be invading our movies these days. Also, the other day I saw four TV commercials within the space of half an hour that all featured people using iPhones, and none of the ads were for the iPhone. How twisted is that?


    May 12, 2012 at 1:23 am

    • Hm… that sounds weird. Product placement within the ads? Some kind of cooperation? I don’t watch TV series at all on TV these days. I buy the boxes. Because I really can’t stand ads.


      May 12, 2012 at 8:32 am

      • Dare I say it, but perhaps advertisers will soon pick up on this fact and maybe focus on more and more product placement within a television program to make sure eyes are on their product?

        Rodney Twelftree

        May 12, 2012 at 12:44 pm

        • Yes, I’m afraid so. Since there are technical devices nowadays helping us to keep the ads away they need to find a way where they can get out their message despite the fact that we don’t want to hear it…


          May 12, 2012 at 1:28 pm

  7. Most obnoxious product placement I ever saw was in the film Torque. Terrible film, I know. Two female bikers faced off against each other by getting ready for their stupid game of bike chicken by resting right in front to an enormous billboard each – one for Pepsi and the other for Mountain Dew. It was NOT subtle.

    Generally, however, product placement doesn’t bother me as long as it’s respectful of the story and doesn’t impinge on the filmmaker making his movie. People use real products all the time, so why shouldn’t a main character be seen using an iPad or a Mac, or drive a particular brand of car. Sure, there’s times when the product placement can feel forced upon us, but as several of the comments above have alluded to, if it’s not in-your-face noticeable than i don’t have a problem with it in the main.

    Rodney Twelftree

    May 12, 2012 at 5:53 am

  8. And to prove my point, here’s the clip from Torque I was torquing about (ha, bad pun! WOOO!!)

    Rodney Twelftree

    May 12, 2012 at 5:54 am

    • Good grief! That movie seems so terrible, and the product placement certainly doesn’t make it better. What were they thinking? It’s basically like watching an ad!


      May 12, 2012 at 8:29 am

      • Torque is a weird movie. It’s a case where the director was hired to make a movie he knew was going to be terrible, so he decided to go all out and make it as ridiculous and cartoony as possible. For that scene, the director was told to put in product placement and put the product placement in he did. Made it as obvious and stupid as he could. I wouldn’t say Torque is a good movie, and there are a lot of scenes that are just boring, but scenes like that one are so over the top bad that they venture into a kind of delightful self-parody. There’s also a chase scene near the end that’s like something out of an anime. Totally insane.

        Corey Atad

        May 12, 2012 at 9:07 am

        • Thanks for the info Corey! That broguht an interesting perspective on it. If he aimed for something cartoony and humorous I can see why it’s there. Still… judging from the clip I doubt I’d enjoy it very much.


          May 12, 2012 at 10:31 am

  9. I’ve kind of developed a grudging acceptance of product placement. It’s just so hard to get funding today without resorting to product placement that I understand why they have to do it.

    Dave Enkosky

    May 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm

    • Yeah, it’s pretty much my stance. But they should do it as discreetly as possible not to bring us out of the movie.


      May 13, 2012 at 8:59 am

  10. Very interesting post, Jessica. I have no problem with product placement, if it’s subtle. In my country, where the main form of TV entertainment is the telenovela, it’s so blatant it hurts. I especially like 30 Rock’s attitude on product placement:


    May 14, 2012 at 12:38 am

    • Haha, yeah, if you can’t hide it, you could as well go all the way. 🙂


      May 14, 2012 at 7:42 am

  11. I’m in the camp that basically never notices product placement. Once in a while I do (though of course I can’t think of any examples, outside of intentionally blatant ones like the 30 Rock one linked above), but only if it’s shoehorned in so it’s jarring in terms of character or plot. Generally they do a bit better job with it, though.

    Things like people using specific phones or drinking specific drinks doesn’t bother me at all. They’ve got to be using some phone and drinking some drink if the scene calls for it, why shouldn’t it be a branded one? It makes no difference to me, and it helps cover the costs of the film or TV show, so why not?


    May 14, 2012 at 11:51 pm

    • I think it depends. It needs to be appropriate for the setting. If it’s about some poor person, struggling to get food for the day, it would be strange for that person to have a brand new iphone. But again: the company probably wouldn’t want to associate with that anyway, so perhaps it sorts itself out.


      May 15, 2012 at 7:26 am

  12. It’s definitely something that’s becoming more prevalent these days. I’m like you, I don’t like seeing a “forced” product placement where it’s blatantly obvious. The logo is flashed onscreen and stays there for a few more seconds than it needs to be there.

    I quit watching Hawaii Five-O this year because of the overload of product placement. I was apparently getting so annoyed with it, it ruined the enjoyment of the show.

    I kind of expect it from things like James Bond, though they’re definitely getting smarter with it with the Daniel Craig Bonds.


    May 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    • Yes, James Bond is the exception, isn’t it? It would feel a bit weird and alien NOT having it there. 🙂


      May 17, 2012 at 8:28 am

  13. […] I wrote a post about product placement and how it irks me if it’s too obvious. I illustrated it with a screenshot from The Greatest […]

  14. I hear you on this one. Like you, I’m generally irritated by product placement, and the more obvious and unnatural it is, the more it ticks me off.

    I don’t mind so much if it’s natural. If someone orders a sandwich and says “Oh, and I’ll have a Coke”, that’s fine. It’s product placement, but it’s also how people talk. I’ve never heard anybody say “I’ll have a cola” in my entire life, it’s always “a Coke” or “a Pepsi” depending on their preference.

    But a lot of product placement isn’t like that. Characters get into their new car and spend two minutes discussing the GPS device and hands-free parallel parking. Who does that? Nobody I know does that. Or a character develops a trademark favorite food, which almost seems natural except the same food shows up in commercials during the show, and as soon as the commercials stop running the next season the character spontaneously stops eating their “favorite” food (Warehouse 13 pulled this with one character and Twizzlers). Or, and this one happens a lot in movies too, the camera focuses just a little too directly on some specific product. A bag of Cheetos on the desk, OK, I can live with that; the bag of Cheetos being in the center of the frame, now you’re pissing me off. That variant happens a lot with cars; they drive off, or drive up, and either way the camera just “happens” to focus on the emblem of the manufacturer.

    I realize that product placement is probably a necessary evil. I just wish it was handled better.

    Morgan R. Lewis

    May 18, 2012 at 11:38 am

    • Yeah, some of the examples people have linked in this comment section are just ridiculous. And I honestly don’t think it will make people love those brands anymore. I rather think they risk that the audience gets annoyed with them, associating them with unwanted, invasive appearances in movies.


      May 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm

      • I’ve never understood the “celebrity sponsor” (which this is really just a variation of) concept anyway. Why would I care if some real celebrity or fictional character likes product X? It doesn’t mean I will.

        Morgan R. Lewis

        May 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm

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