When Product Placement Leads to Branding Fail
May 11, 2015 ‐ 0 comments

In many cases, movie product placement can be a match made in heaven between brands and moviemakers. Brands get high-profile advertising and film producers get much needed up front financing. Some take this relationship to the point of absurdity. Boffo mega-action producer/director Michael Bay featured a whopping fifty-five product placements in his latest sci-fi explosion extravaganza cum extended informercial, Transformers: Age of Extinction. But these partnerships often work out well.

The ongoing relationship between the global colossus Fast and Furious series and Dodge is a more natural partnership than most. The films receive powerful, performance cars that they put through amazing stunts that will drive millions to the theatre worldwide. Dodge receives exposure to millions of fans and potential drivers.  And while it's always dangerous to conflate correlation with causation for five years running, sales of Dodge Challengers have increased despite the impracticality of commandeering 707 hp SRT Hellcat as a daily driver.

Sometimes product placement backfires so spectacularly that it actually damages the brand. Being placed in a flop is bad enough, but backfiring product placement occurs for a number of reasons unrelated to the box office. Here are three things to keep in mind before inking a multi-million dollar product placement deal.

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Make sure the brand portrayal doesn't strain credulity past the point of fracture.

In 2012, Sony had another hit on their hands with the reboot of the Spider Man series. Unfortunately for Microsoft, however, their blatant product placement of BING was not much of a hit with fans. In fact, Peter Parker’s usage of the search engine in the film led to an anti-BING social media campaign, with fans complaining that the nerdy character would never be caught using BING over the nerd-preferred Google.

The lesson? Product placements need to at least pass the straight face test to deliver a brand boost. Given that the Challenger is the most powerful production car ever built, it's no big stretch to imagine the Fast and Furious characters preferring the cars for their underlying performance, rather than a pay for play.  The placement would not work with a Prius. Peter Parker using BING merely reinforces that the brand has paid for a place that it could not credibly earn on its own.

Beware of creative differences over what constitutes portrayal of a brand "in a positive light." 

Peter Parker using BING was a stretch, but at least he was using it as a search engine. Not so for Reebok in the 90’s megahit Jerry Maguire. While the brand was indeed featured prominently in the film, all were as the target of tirades from Jerry’s sole client, the bombastic Rod Tidwell. “*&$% Reebok!” Tidwell exclaims at one point. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Reebok, which paid $1.5 million to appear in the film, eventually sued Tristar Pictures as a result of the brand’s portrayal. Because of the suit, the TV version of the film features a happy ending with Tidwell appearing to have made up with the brand he now loves. While brands can't control everything about the product’s usage, this story highlights at the very least the importance of having appropriate guide rails on the brand’s portrayal.

A movie is not a two hour commercial.

Kids don't have as much experience distinguishing paid advertising from underlying content.  But they're not morons.  Universal Pictures and Nintendo thought they could essentially turn the 1989 film The Wizard, starring Fred Savage, into a 90-minute commercial for Nintendo products. In one scene, a young gamer declares of a new Nintendo product, the Power Glove, just one of many featured in the film, “I love the Power Glove, it’s so bad.” Suffice it to say that neither the movie nor the product was successful. The movie has gained a cult status for being entertainingly awful, and that's not a prize to which any brand aspires.

As popular as a brand might be, it’s not strong enough to carry an entire film. Not even a movie about Apple products could pull it off.  Well ... maybe Apple.

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