Placing product placement

A chilly Saturday

Saturday morning I went to put some gas in my car. After swiping my card and putting the handle in the tank, I was left to wonder why gas wasn’t being delivered to my car while I watched my breath freeze in the cool Wisconsin morning. A quick inspection of the gas pump display revealed an “upsell opportunity,” asking me whether a car wash appealed to me.

As a marketer, I understand the theory behind cross selling to increase awareness and revenues from other products in your portfolio. But as a guy standing in the freezing cold, I was just the slightest bit annoyed at having to press yet another button before the thing I had paid for was delivered to me.

Flash forward to Saturday afternoon. Kris and I took in a showing of Tron:Legacy. As has been the case for the past few years, before the actual movie played we were “treated” to a series of previews and other commercials, a combination of studios, in-house promotions, and soda company missives presenting us with opportunity after opportunity to buy things. And while the ticket says that the movie starts at a certain time, we all know that its really the ads that start at the time printed on the ticket while the movie starts 10-15 minutes later.

Are products placed in movies? Or are movies placed in product ads?

And then at some point in the movie, Kris mentioned that the product placements were so lacking in subtlety that they was becoming distracting. I spotted placements for Nokia, Ducati motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, and Coors beer. None were subtle, pausing for at least an extra moment on the brand’s logo. While they weren’t as disrupting to the movie’s flow as the scene in The Truman Show where Laura Linney turns to the camera mid-sentence and plugs laundry detergent, they did break up the rhythm and pull me out of the story for a few seconds.

I half expected the whole grid to be sponsored by Cisco, “The Human Network (TM)”.

Product placement is nothing new. It can be traced back to the earliest days of film and television, and its use today seemingly outpaces the traditional 30 second spot. You might say that its a small price to pay for ensuring that we continue to get quality entertainment at a reasonable price, that brands have the right to advertise their wares in any way they want so long as they pay for it, that its not really that bad.

My problem is not that it happens; my problem is that more and more its being done very very poorly. Something has changed in the medium in the past year or so. Whereas you would have never see James Bond pull up in his Aston Martin and, before stepping out, turn to the camera and read 10 seconds of benefit-selling copy, somehow its OK for the cast of Psych to sit and discuss the new Ford Fusion for 30 seconds before getting back to the story.

It occurs to me that the real problem here is not the subtlety with which the ads are placed, nor is it the skill with which the stories are told.

No, its the sheer audacity with which the marketers replace the customers’ goals with their own.

Its a lot like garage sales

Have you ever been to a garage sale where the items are grossly overpriced considering what they are? A situation where you just know the person took their purchase price, subtracted a few dollars, and wrote it on the sticker, never minding the fact that the item is 4 years and 3 generations old? Perhaps you’ve even been that person, trying valiantly to assign what you think is a fair price to something you have loved and cherished, not stopping to think that others might see it as only stuff (hat tip to Dan Benjamin’s The Pipeline podcast for the revelation).

The products placed in the movie, the pre-movie ads, the in-show car ads, and even the car wash offer at the gas station all share one critical similarity – they all lack a certain amount of contextual awareness that tells them that telling their story is not the most important part of the experience.

Put another way: they don’t fully grasp where they fit in the equation.

As marketers we spend a lot of time talking about unmet user needs, about developing products that address customer pain points, about understanding and extending the user experience.

But wouldn’t it be terrible if all of that hard work was lost because we couldn’t keep ourselves from annoying our customers?

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