So you’re in the movie theatre or watching a sitcom on TV, and you’re thinking, “How’d this two-bit joke get into the script? They must have known somebody. Why couldn’t the audience be cheering for me?”
No, you’re not begrudging Will Smith, Julia Roberts or Jim Belushi their slice of fame. You’re wondering how Daniel Craig wound up wearing an Omega watch instead of the brand your company manufactures. You’re wondering how much dough Wonder Bread had to cough up to be the sponsor of the car Will Ferrell drives in "Talladega Nights."
As longtime consumers, we're a savvy bunch. The term "product placement" is old news to us. And we know it wasn't a screenwriter or director who insisted those products appear in their films — Omega and Wonder Bread paid big bucks to get their brands into the movies.
But anyone who watches a fair amount of TV or goes to the movies has also probably noticed it’s not just the Miller Lites and American Airlines of the world that are getting their 15 minutes of fame. Every once in awhile, an average Joe-type of product will be given prominent placement. And if you’re a serious and ambitious entrepreneur, you couldn't help but think, “They’re not a major conglomerate. How'd they do that?”
Or more important: “How can I do that?”
Product placement is almost no different than being an unknown actor trying to make it into the movies or TV. And that’s both good news and bad. Because if you aren’t a company with an unlimited marketing budget, getting your product seen on TV or in the movies isn’t easy. But on the other hand, if you’re willing to pay your dues — and if you have some pluck and a little luck — your product, too, can be a star.
The encouraging thing to remember is that Hollywood wants your business, and getting your foot in the door doesn’t always mean paying a huge fee to get it there, says Joey Carson, CEO of Bunim/Murray Productions, which produces numerous reality TV series including MTV’s "The Real World" and "Road Rules" and FOX’s "The Simple Life."
“It’s such an important part of what goes on in television,” says Carson. “Nowadays, you’re either going to have a person in your company who works solely on business development or, at the very least, a big part of a person's job will be focusing on product placement and trade-outs.”
For those not familiar with the term, trade-outs is a form of product placement in which an entrepreneur pays nothing to get their product in a show or movie—except for what it costs to provide the product or service for free. That’s how it worked out for sisters Tag and Catherine Goulet, who own FabJob, a publishing house specializing in career guidance books.
A bewitching product
It was June 2004, when the set decorating coordinator for the movie "Bewitched," called FabJob. He told Tag that Nicole Kidman, who was playing the witchy Samantha Stephens, would be looking for a new career in the movie, so she'd be looking at career-oriented books at a bookstore and he wanted some of theirs.
The set decorating coordinator had found the FabJob website and was impressed by their operation, but the film's director, Nora Ephron, looked at the website while Tag was on that first phone call and wasn't as impressed. Tag understood. The site featured plain e-book images, rather than their actual printed books. In two days, she quickly put together with sample print books and even had her art designer create a fake book, titled "FabJob Guide to Becoming a Witch or Warlock."
Almost two months went by without a word before Tag got an e-mail from a new set decorator, saying they not only wanted to use the books—three copies of each—but that they also needed large cardboard book displays. And they needed it all in a week.
Fortunately, Tag was able to jump through the appropriate hoops and provide "Bewitched" with the necessary props they wanted for close to $1,000. And although the FabJob books aren't featured very prominently in the film—appearing so quickly that Tag admits, “It’s unlikely people would notice them if they weren’t looking for them”—there’s no question that the time and effort put into the product placement was worth it.
“The benefit to us hasn't been the fact that people can see our books in a movie,” says Tag, who notes that they received quite a bit of local media coverage, including a feature story in the Calgary Herald. “The benefit is that we can say our books have been featured in a movie starring Will Ferrell and Nicole Kidman, which is great for credibility.”
Tom Berton agrees. “The fact that you’ve been on the show is actually more important than the actual media and show. The publicity you get from that gives your business credibility," Berton says, "and from that point on, you can be relentless with it.”
Berton owns Shearwater Sailing, a tour boat business. In December 2005, his business received several minutes of exposure on "The Apprentice" when, as a reward, Donald Trump sent two contestants on a boat ride around Manhattan on the Shearwater, a 1920s-era yacht owned by Berton.
He isn't quite sure how "The Apprentice" learned about his business. He'd sent out packets of information to "The Apprentice" series, but those who called him seemed to know nothing about that. Regardless, Berton wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip away from him once the series came to him.
“I signed the most Draconian contract I’ve ever signed in my life,” says Berton, explaining that he was sworn to secrecy to not tell anyone about his company's involvement with "The Apprentice" until the episode aired.
“They can own your business if you ruin their ratings by gossiping to tabloids,” says Berton, explaining that the series understandably considered the scene of the contestants on the boat as proprietary information. “If word leaked out from anyone related to Shearwater, it was understood they'd have immeasurable damage and that we would be fully liable for it,” says Berton. “Basically, I was pledging my assets of the company to them.”
But he’s not complaining. And he's using the experience to his advantage. He prominently mentions his boat’s appearance on "The Apprentice" on his Web site. And when he talks about the experience to people, the reply is often, “That was your boat? That was amazing.” Although Shearwater had a certain cache to it, anyway—it is a luxury yacht—having Donald Trump’s name associated with it arguably increased it tenfold.
Landing a gig
Of course, you don’t have to wait for Hollywood to come to you to get your company name in lights. Producers like Carson encourage entrepreneurs to approach them. “We do a lot of deals with small companies,” says Carson, who thinks there’s something special about working with the underdog entrepreneurs. “I’m just a fan of business in general, and I have a lot of respect for entrepreneurs. You’re taking the risk, and the odds aren’t on your side as a business owner. I’m always happy if there’s any way I can give encouragement to a business by working out a trade-off or product placement deal.”
That said, Carson—or any other producer—isn’t just going to work something out because he likes the entrepreneur, and there is a definite way of going about the art of product placement. For instance, once you learn the name of the production company that produces a show (which you can get by watching the credits if you somehow can’t find it on the Internet), don’t call them ask to speak to the producer or someone in business development. You’re just going to put them on the spot and encourage a “no, thanks.”
Instead, send your pitch in writing. And when you do, pitch your product, not a scenario of how you think the series or movie should use your product. “That’s a turn-off,” admits Carson. “The best way to approach it is to present an overview of your company in general, and whatever product line you have, and then just maybe say, ‘We welcome the opportunity of how our product might be a part of your show,’ and leave it at that. On our side, we’ll know if it’s a fit or not.”
While the bigger players—the ones who can afford to spend big bucks to get their products placed in TV shows or movies—generally use an agency that specializes in product placement, like Norm Marshall & Associates, an international company headquartered in Los Angeles, you don't need to do that to land a gig. You can spend just a few thousand dollars and approach someone like Betsy Green, CEO of Media Matchmaker, a service that hooks up entrepreneurs with producers in the name of getting product placement deals worked out.
When it comes to placement, Green agrees with Carson. “Every producer has a filtering system, and they’ll only use your product if they deem it appropriate," says Green. "You really have to sell your product to the producer, and even then, there are no guarantees. Someone else in the production entity may say the packaging isn’t good enough or the product stinks. Or the star may say they don’t want it.”
In the end, it all comes down to putting on a good show. “It is a creative process,” says Carson. “It’s almost more of a gut-level decision that’s made, because these are creative people at work. But the one main guiding principle is that the product needs to be organic with the show. It can’t detract from the show in any way. One, we don’t want our shows to look like a television commercial, and that leads in to the second rule, which is to protect the show. I think if you do something over-the-top, where a character is holding up a product, practically modeling it as if he’s on "The Price is Right," that’s not good for us—or your brand.”
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