Let’s not ruin a potentially great thing

—Amazon’s new “virtual product placements” may open up significant opportunities for brands, says David Pullara. But it will come with significant risks for great content—

In 1896, the French film pioneer François-Henri Lavanchy-Clarke—an associate of the Lumière brothers—produced a short film of his family washing clothes in a tub. This wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy, except for the fact that featured prominently in the foreground, thanks to an arrangement with the Lever Brothers, was a box of Sunlight soap.

This is believed to be the first recorded instance of product placement in cinema, meaning that the practice of deliberately incorporating a brand or product into an entertainment vehicle in exchange for compensation is at least 126 years old.

Of course, it takes a long time to create a movie, so if you want to be certain it’s your brand of ketchup that appears on the restaurant table during a critical scene, for instance, you need to have everything negotiated and prepared well in advance of the film’s release.

At least that’s how it used to be.

Amazon recently announced that brands will soon be able to insert themselves into Amazon’s content… after it’s been filmed.

“Product placement is not new, but in some cases those placement decisions have to be made months or even years in advance ahead of a show’s premiere and require resources to execute,” Alan Moss, VP of global advertising sales at Amazon Ads, told Adweek earlier this month. “[Virtual Product Placement] helps the brands to show up in new places, reaching an audience that they want to reach and allows our content creators to focus on what they do best during the filmmaking process, and that’s tell really great stories.”

And the audience we’re talking about here is significant: There are currently more than 200 million Prime members around the world, and in 2021, Amazon spent $13 billion to create content for those members. The fact that brands can pay Amazon to feature their products in that content in a way that can’t easily be ignored? That’s big news if you’re a brand looking to drive mass awareness.

(Bell Media recently announced a similar virtual-product-placement offering for Canadian advertisers. However, The Message confirmed that “the opportunity is only available for Bell Media Original series.”)

Done well, product placement can be very effective: There’s no shortage of academic research to back that up, and intuitively, it makes sense.

After all, it’s easy to pull out your phone when you’re watching television and a commercial break begins, or click “Skip This Ad” on YouTube before you get to what you really want to watch.

But it’s almost impossible to ignore Jack Reacher climbing into a Bentley, washing his clothes in a Samsung washing machine, or fuelling up with a Clark Bar when those products are completely integrated into the show.

To be clear, those three Jack Reacher examples were almost certainly products placed more traditionally—Jack Reacher wasn’t filmed getting into a KIA that was replaced with a Bentley in post-production, once the cheque cleared.

But can you film a scene using an empty candy bowl on a table and then convincingly add sponsored products into the environment later on? And will doing so be effective?

It turns out the answer to both questions might be “yes.”

Moss told Adweek that when M&M’s tested “virtual product placement” last year, the brand achieved “an almost 7% increase in brand favourability, and a nearly 15% increase in purchase intent.”

Marketers should be excited about the benefits of the increased flexibility that virtual product placements can offer:

  • Featuring a brand’s latest innovations in a film instead of having to rely on older products;
  • Looking for ways to authentically integrate a brand into a scene while watching a final cut of the episode that a show’s director may not have thought about while filming;
  • Waiting to see if initial episodes of a show resonate with audiences before deciding whether to integrate products during later episodes.

But as a career marketer who’s also a lifelong movie lover, I have some concerns about what may happen to the quality of content being developed if marketers get too excited about VPP.

There are already countless examples of product placements so obvious and inauthentic that they end up being distracting. Take the screen capture from 1984’s Supergirl movie at the top of this column, for instance. It clearly wasn’t enough for Supergirl to inexplicably be standing in front of a Popeyes Chicken restaurant; the lightbox sign also had to read “Love that Chicken” to really drive the sponsorship home. Subtle, right?

According to Beth L. Fossen, assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, these kinds of prominent placements can annoy viewers in two ways.

“First, they make it obvious that they’re trying to sell us something, triggering something called ‘persuasion knowledge’—the phenomenon of getting defensive when we know someone is trying to persuade us…

“Second—and in some ways related to the first point—prominent product placements can annoy us because they interfere with our viewing experience. Most viewers don’t want to be immersed in an intense drama only to be reminded that they’re being targeted by corporations.”

And yet, even knowing this, how tempting might it be for Amazon to start “encouraging” its directors to include more “product placeholder” elements throughout their productions as marketers become enamoured with the possibilities of VPP?

Placeholders like a few more empty bowls around a main character’s home that can later be digitally filled with whatever candy bids the most for the privilege of association. A few more empty desks in the office where beverage sponsors can digitally add bottles if the price is right.

What happens if making it easier for brands to add themselves to our favourite movies and television shows results in a deluge of advertisers rushing to do so, with content creators being forced to include “potential advertising opportunities” throughout their productions?

It could result in the content becoming practically unwatchable.

As a marketer, I’m excited about the idea of a character asking, “You have anything to eat around here” while opening a refrigerator and having my brand digitally inserted inside the fridge. And I’m sure you are too! But can we all agree we don’t need to fill the fridge with multiple SKUs or ensure the products inside are all perfectly facing forward?

Virtual product placement will almost certainly be faster and easier than traditional product placement. But let’s be smart about how we use it. Just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should.

David Pullara is a senior marketing leader who’s worked with Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Coca-Cola, and Google. He currently works as an independent management consultant, start-up advisor, and part-time marketing instructor for the Schulich School of Business at York University.

David Pullara

David Pullara is a senior business leader who has worked with renowned, consumer-centric organizations like Starbucks, Yum! Brands (Pizza Hut), Coca-Cola, and Google. David is currently the Principal of dp Ventures, focused on consulting, teaching and facilitating, speaking, and writing engagements. He also serves as a part-time marketing instructor for the Schulich School of Business at York University. Subscribe to his blog at dpthoughts.ca.