October 29th, 2000
Coke Leads Push to Place Products in Movies, TV
By Scott Leith
Atlanta Journal and Constitution
At one time, it seemed positively unusual to spot real products in the movies.
But along came 1982’s "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" and an accidental
star: Reese’s Pieces candy.
That watershed event helped turn product placement into a business. Today,
placement is so commonplace that companies like Atlanta-based United Parcel
Service hire help to get their products on-screen. Another local giant, Coca-
Cola Co., this year even paid enough money to plug its products throughout a
The question is how well placement works, especially in an age when much of
the audience is downright cynical about advertising.
"Consumers generally are much more marketing-savvy these days," said
Denise DeLorme, an advertising professor at the University of Central Florida
who studies product placement.
Despite the longtime prevalence of product placement, many industry observers
are curious to see what happens now that Coke has raised the stakes. The company
spent $ 6 million to buy sponsorship of the summer series "Young Americans"
on Time Warner’s WB Network. Coke is likely to ink a similar deal for summer
As the world’s best-known brand, Coca-Cola is a bellwether in advertising and
marketing. Coke’s "Young Americans" deal included ads, product placements
in the show and a prominent mention in the title. The combination pushed the
envelope beyond routine deals.
Reviewers noticed. A writer for the New York Daily News called the opening
minutes of one "Young Americans" episode "a slick, thinly disguised
commercial." The influential Washington Post critic Tom Shales said Coke’s
product placement was "ludicrously conspicuous."
Coke shrugs off the criticism. "We feel good about our sponsorship of
‘Young Americans’ and certainly are looking at scripts for next year,"
said Karen Gough, Coca-Cola’s vice president of marketing solutions.
Michael Kamins, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California,
is one of a handful of academics who’ve studied product placement. He doesn’t
think it works very well, despite a few notable cases such as "E. T."
and Reese’s Pieces.
"It seems to work initially," Kamins said, but the impact "filters
away" over a short period.
Companies are nonetheless willing to pay for the privilege. BMW bought its
way into three James Bond films. In the next Bond movie, 007 will drive an Aston
Martin, as he did before BMW came along. That’s because Aston Martin’s new owner,
Ford Motor Co., bought the rights for the high-profile product placement.
What viewers probably don’t realize is that many placements are free. Reese’s
Pieces made it into "E.T." at no charge after Mars Inc. declined to
let producers use M&Ms candies.
In most cases, businesses donate the use of a product in exchange for screen
time. There’s even an industry that specializes in it.
"It is much more of a business now than it ever was," said Barbara
Maultsby, vice president at UPP Entertainment Marketing in Burbank, Calif.,
an agency that reviews scripts and seeks placements for United Parcel Service,
BellSouth and many others.
DeLorme, who did her dissertation at the University of Georgia on product placement,
said the practice seems to work if done with subtlety. "A lot of the ‘success’
of a placement is that it’s naturalistic," she said, such as a character
drinking a Coke as part of normal behavior.
DeLorme has also found that viewers generally like seeing real products in
movies. "It adds realism."
Gough said Coke has studied placement, largely via exit polling at movies.
" We have gotten very positive feedback," she said. That was one factor
behind Coke’s support of "Young Americans."
Coke was disappointed that "Young Americans" ranked among the summer’s
lowest-rated shows, however. "We were looking for a stronger performance,"
Gough said. Nonetheless, Coke might buy title sponsorship to another show on
WB. Coke is also in talks about a similar venture with another network, Gough
Most companies are content with more modest efforts.
UPS, for example, has been an active product-placer for the past two years.
The company has two trucks in Southern California that are available for movies
and television, said Ken Sternad, vice president of public relations.
"We do it to drive home certain messages," Sternad said, citing global
delivery among them. "We’d much rather have them say they’ve got a package
from London instead of from Macon."
UPS has been happy with its exposure. There’s a UPS driver in the new "
Charlie’s Angels" movie, for example, and UPS has had prominent appearances
in movies that include "EdTV" and "George of the Jungle."
Atlanta-based Home Depot often gets calls to use its stores as background scenery.
"Usually we OK it," said spokeswoman Marsha Ferguson, but the company
doesn’t actively seek exposure.
Delta Air Lines generally doesn’t approve of placement. "For us, there’s
not a lot of gain there," said spokeswoman Tracey Bowen. "We often
get requests, but we really don’t accept."
One recent exception: The airline allowed producers to shoot part of NBC’s
" West Wing" in a Delta terminal. "It’s a hit show, and obviously
that helps," Bowen said. She added producers can’t use Delta’s image without
One potential problem with placement is unpredictability. One scene in the
pilot of "Young Americans" had to be reshot because a Pepsi machine
was in the background, Gough said.
Few companies would want their image used in a movie about mass murder. That’s
where placement agencies come in. "We say no for a lot of our clients,"
Maultsby said. The goal is finding placements that are "positive and appropriate"
via script reviews.
While product placement may have mixed results, it’s not likely to go away.
Gough said Coke will continue placement as a way of building the brand.
But she notes that many Coke appearances are pure luck, such as when a refrigerator
was stocked with Coke in "E.T." "We get so much that just occurs
naturally," she said.