Last week Netflix officially released Season 3 of its hit series “Orange is the New Black.” This was my excuse to lock myself indoors for an entire weekend, binge watch the new release and order delivery. But as I spent the weekend mesmerized by bright lights and convoluted plot lines, I was struck by the frequency with which household brands and products appeared on my screen. As I progressed from one episode to the next, I became aware of the prominent role product placement seemed to play – a much bigger role than on traditional, network TV. So I set out to confirm this hypothesis.
It’s no secret that television has changed dramatically in the last half decade, from the way it’s produced to how it’s consumed. Those changes have sparked a shift in the ways brands are able to connect with audiences. With a different business model and with the elimination of commercials, original online television providers like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu must rely much more heavily on product placement as a way to lower production costs and connect with audiences. This in turn, has opened a window of opportunity for CPG brands.
Product placement can be used to demonstrate to consumers the ways in which brands fit into their everyday lives. Done wrong, this feels forced and contrived. But done right, the more organic approach to marketing – a softer-sell that traditional commercials – can be extremely effective. The following examples explore how product placement can be built into the narrative of an episode, for better or worse.
Product placement is not new. When soap operas began airing in the 1950s, the cost of production was largely passed off to CPG companies in exchange for their products, which were then prominently featured in episodes. Unfortunately, the execution of these product placements often falls short. Some scenes are so jarring and unnatural that they become almost comical. And while some might argue that these types of placements are perfect for the genre, I’m inclined to disagree.
While reality TV and game shows have vastly different story structures than episodic or serial programming, product placement still plays a starring role. From that new Toyota showcased as the winning prize on “Survivor” to those red Coca-Cola cups featured front and center on the judging table in “American Idol,” reality TV, too, finds a way to incorporate placement. Bravo’s “Top Chef” does a particularly good job of finding products that naturally fit into the show’s premise. For example, in one episode, the chefs used only Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil in place of all other kitchen tools. While it was quite obviously branded and paid for by Reynolds, it was engaging, inspired creativity, and exposed the benefits of the product without being intrusive to the viewing experience.
For streaming services like Netflix, it’s important to be mindful when it comes to number of placements. What’s the tipping point where there are so many branded moments in an episode that even the most subtle become over the top? “House of Cards” has notoriously struggled to find this balance. Some scenes seem to only exist for the sake of product placement. Whether it’s Claire using a suite of Canon products (for no apparent reason) or Frank probing a fellow congressman about a new PlayStation product, it can become egregious and sometimes leaves the viewer feeling like they’re streaming high-quality, David Fincher commercial vignettes.
At the end of the weekend, I came to the conclusion that “Orange is the New Black” doesn’t rely on product placement as much as the Netflix original, “House of Cards” (after all, a women’s prison isn’t the best setting for your brand). And as Dunkin Donuts appeared in one episode, I questioned whether or not this was purposeful product placement. It made sense in the scene and didn’t seem overtly commercial, but that’s exactly how product placement should be.
While there’s no shortage of good and bad product placement examples, the bottom line is that brands must look for opportunities where their product could be used by characters in ways that feel natural. Apple, for example, is regularly offered placement opportunities free of charge because of the omnipresence of their products in real life. Conversely, if the scenario rings false, it can be extremely awkward, if not destructive, for both sides.
If product placement is to become the “new black,” use it with good taste and restraint.