Product placement has been around since the late nineteenth century, when Jules Verne was persuaded to mention prominent transport and shipping companies in his novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
At this point, product placement is a standard practice in television and film. Typically, these deals are negotiated while a creative project is in its infancy, and writers are instructed to work a set of products into a script before they write it.
But it’s also common for writers to want to use a product in a script without being encouraged to do so by marketers. In these cases, the brand often gets a free ride.
So What’s the Problem?
What bothers me about this is that in the current model, these unpaid inclusions are generally best for both the marketer and the audience. When a writer decides to use a product in a script because he feels it will serve a purpose, the product will play a more central role and feel more naturally integrated into the story.
When a writer is instructed to include a product, it increases the chances of the product placement feeling awkward and forced. To see what I mean, just check out this compilation of product placements from film and television over the years.
So should networks ask for money when the writers already want to use the product? Should they change the script and find a different product to use if no money is delivered?
Some brands are making a concerted effort to get away with free product placement. Subway, for example, has hired a company to arrange in-show product placement by circumventing the teams assigned to do so and instead working directly with creators.
Here’s a Solution
Institute a blanket policy of identifying products in scripts as soon as they appear and contacting the brand in question. If an agreement can’t be made, approach other brands with similar products.
There can, of course, be exceptions for companies like Apple who refuse to pay for product placement and whose products are integral to our culture.
The idea here is not just to increase revenue for entertainment companies, but to incentivize the type of product placement that is best for brands, creators and viewers. The type that arises naturally as part of the creative process.
But until this happens, consider Subway’s model. They’re getting all the benefits of product placements without paying for it, and all it takes is a little effort.
Greg Steen, 10.19.2011