With the 20th anniversary of Steven Spielberg's alien blockbuster ET hitting theaters this summer, audiences will be treated not only to a bit of childhood nostalgia, but also one of the most famous product-placement scenes of all time: a precocious Henry Thomas (Elliott) luring his new big-eyed friend home with a prominently displayed trail of Reese's Pieces.Legend has it that movie executives first had M&M's in mind, but the company wanted a big paycheck for the appearance. Reese's parent Hershey's, however, saw the value of 15 minutes of fame. And the bid paid off - sales of the candy skyrocketed after the film's release, and even today, Reese's Pieces and ET remain linked in pop culture.
ET may not be the first example of product placement (some suggest that 19th-century French author Honore de Balzac peppered his novels with names of shops and products to placate his angry creditors), but it is certainly the best example of the powerful, cost-effective technique. Product placement has become big business in Hollywood deal-making, combining the art of relationships, the instinct for pinpointing hit films, and the science of negotiation. From Tom Cruise's Ray-Bans in Risky Business to James Bond's BMW, companies want their share of screen time, and they're willing to beg, barter, or - heaven forbid - pay to get it.
Whether you're McDonald's or Ed's Autoparts, the first rule of product placement is to enlist an expert. "It's just really about relationships,
explains Lori Cloud of Bragman, Nyman Cafarelli, who has placed products for clients such as Kellogg's and KFC. "We work with (film crews) on a lot of other clients as well, so they're familiar with us."
Like all things in Hollywood, success in product placement largely depends on whom you know in the fierce competition for coveted spots in high-profile TV shows and films. A dozen agencies - such as BNC and Rogers & Cowan - have built up specialty placement divisions over the past two decades.
Joined by a handful of independents, these PR pros make it their business to foster relationships with property masters (those who take care of and acquire set props), wardrobe supervisors, location managers, and transportation coordinators, along with producers and directors. Without help from an established player, these key allies are not only difficult to pinpoint and reach, but probably distrustful of working with an unknown.
A good place to find a reputable partner is the Entertainment Resources & Marketing Association website, erma.org. The group lists product-placement agencies that follow its code of ethics, and it often negotiates non-cash deals. Although many ad agencies are now joining the product-placement pool, purists say these opportunities shouldn't be for sale, and that influencing decision makers with gifts - cash or otherwise - is unfair, and doesn't guarantee success.
"We don't pay for the placement,
says Cloud. "We don't say, 'We really want KFC in your next show, so we're going to cater you're next family reunion,' but that stuff goes on,
When you find an agency, ask to see its reel - sample clips of placements the agency has made in the past.
Just because your agency isn't paying to get your product showcased, doesn't mean you won't. Linda Swick of International Promotions, who works with clients like Volvo, says that companies can expect to pay annual retainers between $30,000 and $150,000 to product-placement agencies.
Some agencies may offer one-shot flat-rate deals, but beware if you've been promised a slot in a film. "There are no promises on their part that you're going to get a hit,
says Cloud. "There are no guarantees." No one but the director can say what will end up in the final cut - or on the cutting-room floor. However, most reputable agencies look for long-term contracts, with a target number of placements each year.
While your newfound expert will probably guide you in the right direction, knowing how to spot a good prospect is vital. Finding a show or film that shares the feel of the product, and targets the appropriate demographic with the right image, is key to a successful placement.
Experts spend hours each week reading scripts for upcoming shows and movies to spot potential matches between clients and material. Knowing the kind of exposure you'd like for your product can save time and energy - and getting it wrong can cause headaches. Alcohol companies wouldn't want minors swilling their products on the silver screen, and a toy company wouldn't want a toddler choking on its latest rattle in a TV drama. "We say no as often as we say yes,
to potential placements, claims Swick.
She adds that she also considers which character will be using the product, and whether it's an organic fit. A product that seems out of place will get the wrong sort of notice from audiences, and will look more like a pushy ad than part of the film.
When you've scored the placement, expect to send over more than a can of your soda or a bag of chips - and make sure you're quick about it.
Many negotiations call for the product company to contribute goods to the production for daily use or special events, such as the "wrap party" for the crew at the finish of filming.
Image consultant Sam Christensen sites a recent example where Glad supplied paper products in exchange for the placement of a new paper cup in a film.
"(Glad) provided all the paper products for the movie, for craft service, paper towels - all that stuff,
he explains. "It saved the production company thousands."
However, if your product doesn't arrive on time, it can cost the production big bucks - and get you bumped from the film, as a replacement item is quickly found to keep the cameras rolling on schedule.
And be sure to specify whether the goods are to be returned or not. For paper towels, the answer is obvious. But if you want your Porsche Boxster back, make sure you spell it out in the contract.