July 18th, 2009

Michigan Products Get Star Power on the Big Screen

By Jaclyn Trop
The Detroit News

Drama swirls around the unlikely lovers played by Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds in this summer’s high-grossing film “The Proposal,” but the orange desk chairs—at the swanky New York publishing company where they work—play their own starring role for both sharp-eyed consumers and the Michigan chair manufacturer.

“The Proposal” and another summer box office hit, “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,” have catapulted Michigan-made products to the silver screen, and the state’s foray into the film industry could spotlight many other brands headquartered here—from Domino’s to La-Z-Boy. An incentive package that provides tax credits of up to 42 percent of moviemaking expenses in Michigan is attracting movie producers and studios to the state and giving local companies the chance to land on Hollywood’s radar.

“Certainly it gives Michigan-based companies more access to opportunities,” said Scott Watkins, senior consultant with the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing.

Opportunities abound on both sides of the camera, he said. The growing film industry in Michigan means more local companies will have a greater chance to build relationships with movie companies—and place their products—whether it’s Kellogg’s snack food or Herman Miller’s chairs—and provide services to crews working on set.

Moviegoers who caught “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen” and “The Proposal” got an eyeful of wares made by General Motors Co. and Holland-based furniture maker Haworth Inc., respectively. The much-anticipated “Transformers” sequel showcases five GM cars that morph into live-action robots.

Product placement in movies and television is a fast-growing sector in the advertising industry, and often costs nothing for the companies angling to feature their brands. Exposure, whether explicitly woven into a plot line or subtly placed on the production set, often resonates with viewers more powerfully than commercials and other advertising, said Michael Bernacchi, professor of marketing at University of Detroit Mercy.

“You can’t leave it. You can’t escape it. You are captive,” Bernacchi said. “It can’t be turned off like a commercial.”

Since “The Proposal” debuted last month, Haworth has received several inquiries about its orange Zody chair, said Fred Van Dyke, Haworth brand manager for seating. “It gives dealers something to talk about with customers.”

The Zody chair has made dozens of cameos—from feature films such as “27 Dresses” and “Hancock” to primetime dramas and sitcoms—since Haworth boosted its product placement efforts three years ago. The company hired a firm, HERO Entertainment Marketing Inc. in Sun Valley, Calif., to seek such opportunities.

“The goal is to create an association between this high-end, iconic beautiful chair and professional work environments,” said Julie Weinhouse, a principal at the marketing firm. “It credentializes it. It’s art imitating life.”

Product placement is becoming a key component of a marketing mix and gives brands a higher profile, Weinhouse said.
Impact of big screen

Many brands earn longevity through successful product placement, Bernacchi said, pointing to classic Tinseltown examples like the Reese’s Pieces candy featured in the 1982 film “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” as the alien’s favorite snack.

The Eames lounge chair by Herman Miller Inc.—Haworth’s Zeeland-based competitor—was familiar to fans of the NBC sitcom “Frasier.” The chair’s high-brow contemporary design became a “running gag” between the voluptuary title character and his philistine father, said Mark Shurman, director of Herman Miller’s corporate communications.

Herman Miller’s Aeron desk chair has received so much exposure since coming to market in 1994 that the company hasn’t had to spend much to advertise it, Shurman said. The model most memorably featured in an episode about “chair envy” on the NBC sitcom “Will and Grace” and on “The Simpsons,” when Homer visits heaven to find God sitting in an Aeron chair.

“I don’t know that it sold a lot of Aeron chairs, but it was an example of the chair coming into the public conscience,” Shurman said. “You’ve really made it when God is sitting in your chair.”

Though it’s difficult to draw a direct line between exposure and sales, phone calls and traffic to Herman Miller’s Web site spike each time one of the company’s products is shown, he said. “It’s proven to be a powerful factor in Herman Miller’s success.”
Pay to play?

The Michigan Film Office, whose goal is to help locate film production in the state, hasn’t designated a liaison to help coordinate product placement between companies and studios; getting involved in script details would be too time-consuming for the small office, said spokesman Mike Shore. But boosting publicity for the state and its assets is one of the office’s goals, he said. “We hope our film activity highlights the pieces of Michigan that really are unique.”

Most product placement for Domino’s Pizza in Ann Arbor is unpaid “because writers and producers look for authenticity, and including real brands in their stories helps do that,” said spokesman Tim McIntyre.

Domino’s, which made an appearance in Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice,” recently provided a 1990s-era uniform and pizza box for Natalie Portman’s upcoming movie “Hesher.”

But some companies do pay to be featured on a show. Living Essentials, the Novi-based manufacturer of 5-Hour Energy—with $180 million in sales last year—recently had the drink featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” for an undisclosed sum.

“For us, it was an advertising purchase” that stood out from a typical television advertisement, said president Scott Henderson. “It’s also less likely to get fast-forwarded over by users of DVRs and Tivo.”

Monroe-based La-Z-Boy routinely draws interest from TV and movie producers, said chief marketing officer Doug Collier. The recliner played a role on “Friends,” when characters Rachel and Chandler discuss Rachel’s new La-Z-Boy E-cliner 3000.

A script that mentions a brand name is more effective than one that puts a product in the background, but “there’s always the problem of overdoing it,” Bernacchi said. Weaving the recliner into the plotline of “Friends” was tasteful, he said. 

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