Commentary

Brands And Product Placement Are Unavoidable

We've all seen product placement and product integration into entertainment. It dates back to the Texaco Star Theatre, and was updated by "Cast Away" (with Tom Hanks) and "American Idol" (which apparently stars Coca-Cola and some kids who can sing). In today's culture, we expect products to be center stage almost as much as the stars themselves, but is this working--and we should we care that brands are hijacking our entertainment in this way?

For up-and-coming brands that have been able to clearly identify their audience and have given thought to their brand image, these are extremely beneficial, as they not only raise awareness and demonstrate the product in a way the consumer can clearly see, but they reinforce the image of the brand. They echo the way we use the products in real life, and in many instances have become the centerpiece for the entertainment itself. "You've Got Mail" featured AOL in a way that demonstrated how we use e-mail to communicate, and the upcoming movie "Must Love Dogs," featuring John Cusack and Diane Lane, incorporates Perfectmatch.com into the story as a way to find love in 2005. AOL, you could argue, was still on the rise when the movie came out--and Perfectmatch is certainly a rising brand in the dating and relationships category.

For established brands, product placement has always been subtle, yet effective. The old James Bond movies featured BMW, Mercedes, and Lotus, and created a sense of "cool" around those brands, although not in an over-the-top manner. BMW films was genius in that it reinforced the image of a brand by latching onto cool plots and hot directors, even though it was more blatant than previous attempts. It spoke to a very specific audience. "The Italian Job" may have gone a little over the top with the Mini Cooper integration, but somehow this was still effective in increasing the buzz surrounding the cars, possibly because it was so tightly in line with the ad messages that were being sent out.

I recently read an article about an upcoming reality show in which the products are going to be so integrated that they become a topic of actual conversation for the "actors". My first reaction to this was one of disgust. I felt that literally "writing" in dialogue about the products to a reality show would be ridiculous and overbearing, but upon further read and review of the article, I came to the conclusion that this was not out of the ordinary.

We live in a culture that celebrates the brand. Whether it's the brand of car you drive, the brand of soft drink you consume, the brand of clothing you wear, or the brand of liquor you drink, we are all brand-centric. If you listen to a conversation between two young males, they might talk about their Xbox and the games they play, but they'll certainly talk about the highlights of the new gadgets they're using (such as a Treo or a PSP) and will undoubtedly refer to them by name. Some women may speak about their favorite brand of lip gloss or their favorite designer jeans, once again mentioning them by name and hearing a response of either support or criticism for the brand. Try as we do to fight it, we are extremely brand-centric, and these brands are woven into the very fabric of what we do every day. I noticed a store open on Union Street, here in San Francisco, that prides itself on having No-Brands on their clothes. The fact that they have No-Brand is a marketing tool for them, which is rather ironic in my eyes.

Consumers today are born with a sense of cynicism concerning marketing and advertising. This cynicism should be the focus of an entire study because it appears to reject the things that we value the most. It creates a situation wherein we hate brands for trying to manipulate our vision of the world around us, yet these brands are the core of our decision-making abilities. I heard a quote last week, which paraphrased said: "The reason we choose the brands we use is because we use the brands we choose". The reason we stick with brands is because these are the brands we use. If we see other people like us using these brands, it cements our desire to use them. It's so subtle that it can't be avoided.

Think about it the next time you pick up a product, or get dressed in the morning and wonder why you have the brand you have.

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