The book of Ecclesiastes gave us the expression "there is nothing new under the sun." The growing frenzy over product placement in film and TV only confirms what the ancient religious scholars foretold.
According to The New York Times, "Madison Avenue and (the film side of) Hollywood have been working together in earnest since the 1930's--and in some isolated instances, evidence indicates, even before then." Academic research has produced "evidence of product-placement agreements made beginning in the 30's, by major brands like Bell telephones, Buick, Chesterfield cigarettes, Coca-Cola, De Beers diamonds, and White Owl cigars, with major studios like Columbia, MGM, and Warner Brothers."
The "re-invention" of product placement has gained a new urgency because consumers increasingly have the technical power to avoid commercial messages on TV. The blame seems to fall on digital video recorders--but ever since the advent of the remote control, this has not only been possible, it has become widespread. As the convergence of TV and the Internet continues at an inevitable pace, consumers will only gain that much control over what they see and when they see it. Will consumers be able to use tomorrow's technology to totally avoid electronically delivered commercials?
There are companies developing ad serving technology that will try to assure that consumers can't block ads served online. Probably on the other side of the wall in the same building are companies working on advance ad blocking technology to make sure ads are never served against the user's will.
If consumers in fact end up with the power to block all electronically served ads, what can we do as an industry that won't simply annoy our audiences into seeing our ads? As I have written in the past, the single most important tactic is compelling creative. Produce ads that consumers want to see.
Second, serve it in a format that is appealing. I take a world of kidding about the odd names we give our rich media products (Shoshkele, Yachne, Ooqa-Ooqa, Shoshmosis, Shvitzer, etc.), but I do it to emphasis their uniqueness. They not only deliver messages--they offer consumers free tools they might not otherwise get. And so they have the incentive to not only view the accompanying ads, but to spend a longer time with them. Since every one of our new units offer an opt-out function, we were forced to offer the user a better and more interesting experience to keep them engaged. The definition of "a better experience" may be subjection, but with online you can pretty precisely measure the various aspects of what consumers like about your offer.
If there is to be a true reinvention of product placement, I think it will be online, first in streaming video. With TV, even a product placement is passive, because unless the characters interact with it, it sits in the shot hoping for some viewer attention. With online recorded video, there was a primitive process called hotspotting (which we have succeeded in improving and incorporating in our Shoshmosis streaming video unit) that enables the audience to click on a product that appears in the video, and have a window immediately open to explain more about the product or actually be able to buy it at that moment. This is not only pleasing to the user, it gives the "advertiser" some metrics to measure user interest in the product.
With TV or movie product placement, advertisers are left wondering exactly which aspect of their overall marketing efforts have generated the in-store sales. With the new online streaming video hotspotting, there is a direct link to consumer interest and action.
With streaming video, programming can be altered to include virtual products that weren't in the show or movie that the consumer first saw, so there is a great secondary market emerging. And finally, as more and more video is shot just for the Web, look for product placement opportunities that really are something new under the sun.