From E.T. to Back to the Future to Reality TV, It’s Everywhere

To persuade a jaded audience to watch advertisements and buy products, advertisers have come to rely on product placement. Here’s a history of this popular strategy.

Product placement is a type of advertisement in which an advertiser pays to prominently display a product as a part of scene or story in a television show, movie, magazine article, or another form of media. If it seems to you that this kind of advertising is more common than ever, you’re right! Here’s a short history on product placement and why it’s everywhere these days.

History of Product Placement

Product placement, as we know it today, has only been a popular phenomenon since the 1980s. Before the 1980s, if a movie or TV scene accidentally showed a glimpse of a product, the media company had to pay the makers of that product a fee.

The turning point for product placement occurred in the 1980s with a very popular movie—E.T. The Extraterrestrial. Of course, this film contains the famous scene when Elliott coaxes his hungry extraterrestrial visitor out of the shed with a trail of Reese’s Pieces. The Hershey Company was paid for the privilege of using its product in the movie. But when the sale of these previously obscure candies skyrocketed, media makers realized they were doing things backwards, and that companies should be paying them for using their products in movie and TV scenes and storylines.

Thus, during the 1980s, product placement quickly became a common practice in movies, and gradually in TV shows as well. Some of the earlier attempts at product placement were funny because they were so poorly done; for example, in Back to the Future, audiences laughed at scenes where brands of soda were discussed as the camera zoomed in close to the cans.

As time went on, though, product placement became more sophisticated. Today, advertising quietly becomes part of the plot of some of our favourite TV shows and movies — whether it’s Rachel trying to sneak Pottery Barn furniture into her apartment past antique-loving roommate Phoebe on Friends, or whether it’s hungry reality show contestants on Survivor competing in a reward challenge for the opportunity to pig on Pringle’s potato chips.

In fact, one of the most common places to see product placement — often in its most obnoxious, obvious form — is on reality TV. Many programs work product placement into the show’s challenges, whether it’s Apprentice candidates creating competing marketing campaigns for a new variety of Domino’s pizza, or America’s Next Top Model contestants shooting competing ads for Cover Girl. Products find themselves placed all over these programs, even as the American Idol judges rate the contestants and sip their Pepsis.

The Effectiveness of Product Placement

Why has product placement become so common? Because it works. In today’s hypercompetitive advertising climate, product placement is a strategy that gets messages out to consumers, whether they like it or not.

On television, one primary reason why there’s so much product placement is because it’s become so easy to block out traditional commercials. Thanks to the remote control, VCRs, DVD burners, and especially DVR players (like TiVo), it’s easy for audiences to skip right by the ads. With product placement, the ads become the content, and they can’t be skipped.

Another reason why product placement is so common is that audiences have become positively jaded by advertising. While audiences in the 1950s found ads entertaining enough to watch them from start to finish, today’s audiences are both sceptical about corporate appeals and bored by the constant stream of ads we see everywhere in our lives. Product placement brings entertainment value to ads by incorporating them into storylines.

The astronomically rising prices of TV and movie production also has contributed to the popularity of product placement. By selling products inside the show as well as during the commercial breaks, the industry taps into a whole other source of revenue.

In today’s advertising-saturated world, product placement has become an everyday strategy that advertisers use to make sure that their products are visible to consumers. As with all ads, consumers need to be aware of these appeals and evaluate them with a critical eye.