Product Placement

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Quick, what’s E.T.’s candy of choice? What drink do “American Idol” judges sip while listening to warbling contestants? What fast-food chain featured prominently on the NBC action-comedy “Chuck”?

If you know the answers (Reese’s Pieces, Coca-Cola and Subway, respectively), you understand the effectiveness of product placement. Indie filmmaker Morgan Spurlock even explored the concept with a feature-length movie, “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” He funded the 2011 film with—what else?—product placement.

Network television has been advertiser-supported since the start, but recent years have seen an upswing in the use of product placement in TV, movies, videogames and online media. In 2009, advertisers spent $3.61 billion for paid placements, according to Connecticut-based marketing research firm PQ Media.

Product placement, also known as product integration, embedded marketing or brand integration, is nothing new—movie network AMC’s traces the practice back to 1896. But it’s becoming increasingly important in an era where viewers use digital video recorders to skip over ads and trade TV time for screentime with devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones. Last year, 577 product placements occurred on “American Idol,” the most of any television show, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Still, not every brand you see on the screen has paid to be there. Sometimes, companies get lucky by donating goods that are later used on-air. Other times, name-brand products are simply used to ground a production in reality. For example, Nielsen’s most-remembered integration of 2011 was the use of Purell in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. “We use real brand names so dialogue doesn’t sound fake,” executive producer Bill Prady tweeted in December in response to Nielsen’s year-end report.

However they get there, the placement of branded goods and services is big business, and Central Ohio companies have taken notice. Whether they’re writing a check to popular TV shows or sending free goods to those with media connections, some local businesses find product placement is a perfect way to grow sales and increase their reach.

Earned Vs. Paid

“I can’t believe Elmer’s works on leather,” said actress Amanda Seyfried. “Elmer’s works on a lot of things like fabric; it works very nicely,” replied the doyenne of domesticity herself, Martha Stewart, as the pair crafted leather accessories using Elmer’s Glue-All.

The conversation could have come straight from ad copy—but it didn’t. The celebrities praised Elmer’s in a May 2010 episode of Stewart’s daytime show; the company paid only the expense of supplies and shipping. Terri Brown, senior manager of communication for Westerville-based Elmer’s, says Stewart “really likes Elmer’s. She’s contacted us several times for product for different reasons, either for something for print or for one of the TV segments.”

Seyfried’s shout-out was an added bonus. “We got the advantage of getting the celebrity endorsement right there, because not only was Martha using the product, but so was Amanda,” Brown says. “I think, in product placement overall, it’s the third-party endorsement that’s often the biggest benefit.”

Unlike commercials, which TV watchers often go out of their way to avoid, in-show product use may add to the viewing experience. “Viewers tend to like product placements as long as they add realism to the scene,” reported an April 2011 article in the Journal of Management and Marketing Research (JMMR).

“The whole idea of [TV] advertising is becoming outdated, and people are not paying attention,” says Shashi Matta, a clinical assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University. “Marketers realize that with product placement, it could really work.”

Arena District-based SBC Advertising added earned placement to its longstanding paid product placement practice four years ago. It has had a fair amount of success, particularly with home improvement shows.

Through the mid-2000s, new construction and renovations made building products a “notable piece of our economy,” says Zachary Bingham, SBC’s vice president and director of public relations. When those industries contracted with the economy, many companies cut their marketing budgets but wanted to get broadcast exposure for their products. Earned placement was “a great way” to meet client requests, Bingham says. “And the neat thing is those episodes tend to re-air three or four times.”

One drawback to earned placement is that a brand gives up control. It could get presented in an unflattering light—or cut out altogether. Paid placement eliminates such risks. “Anything that is negotiated and planned, we’re going to screen the script and a rough cut, along with a schedule, an airing schedule, prior to it ever being watched,” says Jim White, vice president and media director for SBC.

Starting Out

Paid placements generally appear as part of an overall advertising agreement and can cost less than $10,000 up to several hundred thousand dollars, according to JMMR. Earned placements take a different approach. A placement may be initiated by a studio or TV show, but more often than not, it requires a company or its broker to undertake some legwork. “I really think research is such an important part of the process,” says Karen Bailey, an associate vice president and leader of the media relations practice at Fahlgren Mortine, which represents Elmer’s. “Knowing your product, knowing the audience that it fits and knowing the outlet is so important. … Finding the right person is also important, and you may get passed off a few times to different people to try to find out exactly the right person.”

Local agencies and their clients say there are keys to success when it comes to product placement. First, target a particular program. Ryan DeArment, vice president of sales and marketing for Pennsylvania-based Channellock, a hand tool maker and SBC client, says he seeks out “tool nut” shows such as “Mythbusters” or “American Chopper.”

“You know that the fans are tinkerers, and they’re usually building and doing things with their hands,” he says. When SBC approached him about participating in “Unchained Reaction,” a competition show produced by the stars of “Mythbusters,” DeArment jumped at the opportunity. The show sent a wish list asking for “two of this, two of that,” he says. “And I was like, send them 20 of it. Don’t give them an excuse not to have it on the show.”

Bingham says SBC generally focuses its earned placement work on home improvement shows because the field could include a significant portion of its clientele. Also, “The networks, specifically HGTV and DIY, were really expanding the number of programs they offered, so it gave us a lot of potential programs to reach or to start to build a relationship.” SBC now has connections with about 30 shows and has made dozens of placements for clients, Bingham says.

The first media appearance for Sugardaddy’s Sumptuous Sweeties came in 2007 after it was approached by Food Network. The Polaris-headquartered brownie company competed in a bake-off on “Throwdown with Bobby Flay” where the Sugardaddy’s team beat the celebrity chef. “It clearly doubled our business,” says Mark Ballard, who shares the titles of co-founder and co-CEO with Tom Finney.

Sugardaddy’s has since appeared on the “Rachael Ray Show” and “Today.” Now, “Unique Sweets,” a Cooking Channel program, is in their sights. “We’re really pitching to them from this whole aspect of, ‘We don’t only make 20 different flavors of brownies and blondies and they’re great and wonderful, but let’s walk you through how we create extended brownie products from our cutaways that would otherwise be thrown away,” Ballard says.

Finding the Decision Makers

Perhaps the most important key to earned product placement is to find out who has the authority in a particular production to give the thumbs-up or -down. Despite appearances to the contrary, Ty Pennington and other celebrity designers aren’t necessarily the ones calling the shots and deciding which products to use.

Likewise, Ellen DeGeneres may have a sweet tooth, but Sugardaddy’s made it into her green room via the show’s product placement coordinator. When Finney called, the coordinator “basically just said, ‘Yeah, sure. Send it. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.’ And lo and behold, a couple weeks later, he called and was like, ‘Those were the best brownies and the greatest packaging—what if we put those in the green room?’ ” Finney recalls. The relationship, intended to last a year, extended to three.

To be successful, a placement must seamlessly mesh into a program’s overall content and not stick out like an infomercial. T-shirt maker Ron Kaplan created his iconic “Surf Ohio” designs in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s he was printing tees for visiting film crews—and sometimes A-list directors and actors—on behalf of the Ohio Film Commission. “As it happened, I mentioned to the film commission that ‘Family Ties’ took place, supposedly, in Central Ohio. They were working with those producers and knew them, and they got the shirts to the producers of ‘Family Ties.’ ”

In a 1986 episode (and later, in a flashback), actor Michael Gross, who played an ex-hippie turned public television manager, wore one of the shirts. Kaplan says producers “loved [it] because it was irreverent and it was something that somebody like him would wear if he were living in Columbus.”

Kaplan now lives in Dayton, but he’s hoping lighting will strike twice. Son Zach prints contemporary Surf Ohio shirts at Traxler Tees in Clintonville, and Homage in the Short North has licensed Kaplan’s vintage designs. After connecting with an assistant wardrobe coordinator, Kaplan sent several T-shirts to the set of “Glee,” which is set in Lima. “That would be huge if it shows up on there,” he says.

It’s not just if a product appears on a program, but how it appears that determines if a placement is deemed successful. Negotiations can include whether a brand’s logo will appear, how the item will be used, how much time will be spent with the product and how its placement can be promoted afterward. It also requires maintaining relationships, especially in a field where a person who is a valued contact one day may be gone the next.

“The whole process is absolutely a combination of art and science,” Bingham says. “Setting expectations on both sides of the fence is a pretty critical process. Obviously the last thing we would want to do is let the show down or let our client down. Over the years we’ve kind of learned how to set those expectations and make sure that the process works nearly flawlessly.”

Positive Results

When talking with a client about placement, firms discuss elements such as a show’s demographics, number of viewers, the amount of time the product appeared on screen, where it appeared and what it would have cost to run the ad equivalent.

Fahlgren scores placements by how well they align with its media relations objectives, says Bailey. “For example, how influential is the show or audience among our key audiences? Or, were key messages included?”

Brown, of Elmer’s, says such measurements can be tricky. “Product placement is part of an integrated plan, so it’s often difficult to tell which of those elements drove, perhaps, sales or foot traffic to different retailers,” she says. Brown says Elmer’s has noticed brand conversations increase following placements. “For us, that’s been one thing we’ve tried to watch and track more of, is what happens in social media after a brand or product placement takes place.”

Bailey says through the years, Fahlgren has placed “thousands of products through earned media on national and local television shows, consumer magazines, trade magazines, radio shows and websites.” She agrees it’s difficult to measure success. “However, we believe combining experience working with the media with creative and smart thinking, you can consistently find the right opportunities for the right products.”

Every time Sugardaddy’s “Throwdown” appearance aired, sales would rise an average of $20,000, Ballard says. Ultimately, “Food Network has been responsible for a half-million [dollars] in sales,” he says. It also prompted Sugardaddy’s to reinvent itself from an online-only business to a bakery with three brick-and-mortar locations in Polaris, Downtown and Easton.

Ballard says media appearances have both fueled Sugardaddy’s growth and validated the co-founders’ vision. “Not a day goes by that we don’t have somebody who says, ‘I saw you on Food Network,’ or ‘I saw you on ‘X’ publication,’ ” he says. “These endorsements have really been important for us, because there’s a lot of competition, there’s a lot of noise, there’s a lot of people doing sweets, and you have to cut through that.”

Still, placements only go so far. Ballard and Finney spent three years developing their collection of brownie and blondie flavors and positioning it via endorsements and placements. “People ask us for our contacts, and it’s really the wrong question. You should be asking yourself what makes your product better than the competition, what makes it unique, what kind of spin have you put on it. At the end of the day, that’s what you need to make it in today’s economy,” Ballard says.

Jennifer Wray is a staff writer for Columbus C.E.O.

Reprinted from the March 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.