Product Placement

1. Introduction 

In order to reach their target customers, marketers have turned to a variety of communication channels in their integrated marketing communications (IMC) efforts. One of these channels is product/brand placement that can be used in television, cinema, books, games, etc… In this paper, a comprehensive literature review will be presented incorporating following areas:

  • Definition of Product Placement
  • History of Product Placement
  • Factors Influencing Product Placements
  • What are the Effects of Brand Placement? Are they measurable?
  • Advantages of Product Placements
  • The Ethics of Product/Brand Placement
  • Potential Avenues For Future Research

In addition to these literature reviews, five well-known and popular product placement practicess will be presented as examples in the appendix part.

2. Literature Review

Definition of Product Placement

Product placement has beed defined differently among writers in the literature. For instance; Balasubramanian defined product placement as ‘a paid product message aimed at influencing movie (or television) audiences via the planned and unobtrusive entry of a branded product into a movie (or television program)’ (1994, p. 29) where McCarthy defines it in a more simple way: ‘the placing of branded products in movies and television programs’ (2004, p.45). Generally, a product is placed in a movie or television show in return for payment of money or other promotional consideration by the marketer (Gupta and Gould, 1997).

Since most of the scholars and practitioners defined product placement as an advertising tool used on TV or cinema screen, there are also writers who mentioned about product placement in different areas. For example, Glass defined product placement as ‘an advertising technique, that involves inserting a brand or product into a movie, television show, book, or video game (2007, p.23) and Bhatnagar et al. (2004) defined product placement as branded inclusion in any medium, not just in movies or T.V. programs.

History of Product Placement

Product placement is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the 1940s, at the start of the movie industry when the goal was to make scenes appear more realistic. However, it was Spielberg’s use of Reese’s Pieces in E. T. that led to the popularization of the practice in movies (Law and LaTour, 2004). According To Brennan, Dubas, and Babin

(1999) the original motivation for product placements was on the part of the motion picture studios in their effort to add a greater level of reality to the movies by having real brands in the stories. Over time, when motion picture producers had became aware of the commercial value of these placement opportunities, product placement practices started to be more common. Especially well-known successes in the 1980s, most notably Reese’s Pieces placement in E.T. The Extra- Terrestrial, which increased the candy’s sales by 66%, and Rayban’s placement in Risky Business, which tripled the sales of the sunglasses worn by TomCruise in the movie increased the interest on product placement (Fournier and Dolan, 1997). Today, product placement is very common and it is not only in movies and television (McCarthy, 2004) but it is being used in music videos and video games as well (Karrh, 1998).

Factors Influencing Product Placements

Although all product placements share some common characteristics, they can differ in a number of ways. A brand can be visually present in a scene, or it can be mentioned and not seen. A placement can be brief, or the product can be an integral part of a character or the story (McCarthy, 2004).

Russell (1998) characterized product placements as a three-dimensional framework:

  1. The first dimension is the extent to which a placement is visual. A placement can be purely visual, (e.g. a truck with the logo of the placed product on the side).
  2. Second dimension is the verbal nature of the placement. The brand may not be mentioned at all in the dialogue of the story, might be mentioned several times, and so forth.
  3. Third dimension is the degree to which the placement is connected with the plot of the movie.
    1. At one level, a brand can simply be one that is visible in a scene of a movie and not connected to the main part of the story (e.g. a billboard or a brand name on the side of a truck in the background of the action of the scene)
    2. At the other end of this dimension, a product placement can be intimately tied to the plot, as in You’ve Got Mail, or be closely connected to the nature of the character, as the type of car that James Bond drives or the brand of wristwatch he wears.

Law and LaTour (2004) asserted that; the company considering buying a product placement has several issues to consider, such as how central the product is to the plot; how the placement appears (visual, auditory, or both); whether it is seen in a positive or negative context; and how to best measure the product category. They suggested followings after analyzing empirical results:

  • If the manufacturer’s goal is conscious recall, centrality to the plot is key.
  • Those products both seen and heard were more central to the plot
  • Information from a negative context is better recalled, so a product appearing in a negative way will be remembered better than a favorable presentation. However, in this scenario, there is likely to be dissociation between the explicit and implicit measures ,
  • For low-involvement purchases the use of implicit rather than explicit measures will be more appropriate.

Bhatnagar et al (2004) also dealt with conditions influencing placement efficacy and examined message characteristics (i.e., fit of the placed message with the context, strength of the placement), media or perceived source characteristics (i.e., media credibility), and recipient characteristics (i.e., involvement with placed claims, awareness of persuasive intent), and propose various relationships they have with placement efficacy:

  • Influence of Message Characteristics on Placement Efficacy: People pay more attention to claims that have a good fit with the context they are placed in. Efficacy is expected to be low when placements are extremely weak or extremely strong. When placements are too weak, it is hard for audiences to notice them, and when they are extremely strong, consumers become suspicious that a marketing effort is in progress and become skeptical of the claims. At optimum efficacy level, a placement should be strong enough to get noticed and internalized but not so strong that it generates negative scrutiny.
  • Influence of Media Credibility on Placement Efficacy. Placed messages in highly credible media are more likely be believed, and consumers may generate a backlash against credible media if commercially motivated messages get noticed.
  • Influence of Consumer Involvement on Placement Efficacy. Finally, the impact of consumer characteristics (such as the level of involvement) was examined. When a message is personally relevant to consumers, the likelihood of scrutiny is higher. At high levels of involvement, consumers are more likely to ignore media characteristics (like credibility) as cues and scrutinize claims closely.

What are the Effects of Brand Placement? Are they measurable?

According to McCarthy (2004) the most active area of academic research on product placement relates to the effects of placement on viewers. The effects have generally been considered in terms of memory (recognition and recall), evaluation of the brands, and purchase intention. According to McCarthy (2004) early studies on the effects of product placement yielded mixed results with respect to the recall or recognition of brands placed in films; these studies generally showed weak or nonexistent effects of placement on brand evaluations because these studies generally failed to recognize the multidimensional nature of product placement. In contrast, studies that are conducted more recently (Gupta and Lord, 1998; Brennan, Dubas, and Babin 1999; Russell, 2002) dealt with multidimensional nature of product placement:

  • Gupta and Lord (1998) conducted a study that evaluated the effectiveness of product placements of different modes (visual, audio) and different levels of prominence of the placement; the study also compared product placement with advertising. The results showed that prominent placements were remembered better than advertisements, and advertisements were remembered better than subtle product placements.
  • Brennan, Dubas, and Babin (1999) investigated the relationship of type of placement and exposure time with recognition of the placement. Their results showed that placements more central to the story were remembered better. The effect of exposure time was a little less clear.
  • Russell (2002) investigated product placements as a function of the modality (visual and auditory) and the degree of connection between the plot and the placement; the focus of the study was the congruency between modality and plot connection. Russell found that incongruent placements were remembered better than congruent ones; however, attitude toward the brands changed more in instances with congruent placements.
  • Bhatnagar et al. (2004) believed that most of the times it is hard to gauge the effect of placements on marketing outcomes, especially given the integrated nature of the promotional mix employed by most firms. Although product placement has been very popular, it is unusual for promotional campaigns to consist solely of placements.

Advantages of Product Placements

Bhatnagar et al. (2004) mentioned about several key advantages of placing products regarding cost-effectiveness, width of message reach, longevity of message life, and implied endorsements.

  • Integrating brands within programming provides a potentially cost-effective alternative to advertising.
  • Entertainment media have wide local, national, and global audiences. The number of tickets sold for a moderately successful movie worldwide well exceeds the reach of an average advertisement.
  • Entertainment vehicles have potentially longer shelf lives (e.g., feature films, television programs, and music have afterlives on home videos, foreign distribution, cable casts, and network broadcasts).
  • Embedding brands within a context reinforces the impact of the message and creates an appearance of brand endorsement (Balasubramanian, 1994).

Yang et al. (2004) claimed that brand placement is used because, it is believed to be effective, but, more specifically, brand placement has a number of advantages compared with traditional advertising, such as 15- or 30-s commercials.

  • First, brand placement probably overcomes the problem of zapping (Avery and Ferraro 2000). It is easy to run to the kitchen for a beer during a commercial break, but a person is less likely to run to the kitchen when Reese’s Pieces are being placed on the ground because the viewer wants to watch the movie (d’Astous and Chartier, 2000).
  • Second, brand placements are often associated with well-known actors or actresses, and, as a result, the placement can work as a celebrity endorsement (Avery and Ferraro, 2000).
  • Third, brand placement allows for advertisers to target very specific audiences because the demographics of who attends which kinds of movies are well understood by Hollywood (Nebenzahl and Secunda, 1993).
  • Fourth, brand placement has a longer life than does typical advertisement (d’Astous and Chartier, 2000).
  • Fifth, audiences probably have less-critical responses to brand placements than they do to standard commercials (Babin and Carder, 1996).

The Ethics of Product/Brand Placement

According to Yang et al. (2004); within the literature ethics regarding brand and product placement also has received extensive attention.

Several content analyses of television and movies suggest that cigarettes appear in movies at a much higher rate than they should, given the prevalence of smoking in the general population. For instance, in a content analysis of four episodes of 42 of the most popular television shows among adolescents and adults in the fall of 1998, Christenson et al. (2000) found that approximately 22% of all television episodes contained either references to smoking or smoking behaviour.Similarly, in a content analysis of 200 movies from 1996 and 1997, Roberts et al. (1999) found that 89% of all movies included references to smoking or smoking behavior, and 17% of the characters who appeared to be under the age of 18 smoked.

Some researchers have argued that the prevalence of smoking and cigarettes in movies and on television is responsible, at least in part, for adolescents’ smoking initiation (Basil, 1997; Chapman and Davis, 1997).

Two experimental studies looking at the effect of smoking in movies have also been cited as indicating that portrayals in movies influence smoking initiation. Hines, Saris, and Throckmorton-Belzer (2000) found that male regular and occasional smokers who watched film clips that included smoking indicated a stronger desire to smoke a cigarette than those who watched a clip that did not include smoking. In the second experimental study, Gibson and Maurer (2000) had participants watch two different clips from the movie Die Hard. In one clip, Bruce Willis smokes, and in the second clip he does not smoke. Nonsmokers who were low in need for cognition rated themselves as more likely to become friends with a person who smokes after viewing the clip in which Bruce Willis smoked than did those who watched the clip in which he did not smoke.

Potential Avenues For Future Research

In his study, McCarthy (2004) proposed following areas as potential for future research:

  • Salience of Product Placement: According to McCarthy (2004) the issue of salience of the placement is an important area of potential research that may help researchers understand the impact that product placement may have on consumers’ evaluation of the product.
  • Involvement and Context: Issues such as involvement level with the story and context of story/advertising can be potential research areas
  • Placement and Product Characteristics: A potentially useful area of research relates to the characteristics of products for which product placement would provide the most benefit. For example, is product placement more beneficial for a relatively unknown brand where association with the story line or character would build awareness and interest or is it more useful for brands for which consumers have prior information where the placementwould reinforce existing beliefs? (McCarthy, 2004)
  • Long-Term Effects of Product Placement: According to McCarthy (2004) until now academic studies have only measured the short-term effects of product placement. 

3. Conclusion

As a new way to communicate with customers, marketers have been increasing their attention toward product placement over the past decade. It has been a popular topic among practitioners as well as marketing scholars.

In this study, a comprehensive literature review was tried to be presented in order to put forward general tenets about product placement. The literature review was consisted of most popular subjects like product placement such as; history of product placement, factors influencing product placements, effects of brand placement, advantages of product placements, ethics regarding brand placement and potential research areas about product placement.

In order to complete the big picture about product placement, five chosen product placement practices are presented in the appendix part.


In this part, five product placement practices are chosen among various popular practices.

  • Reese’s Pieces in E.T.

Reese’s Pieces is the most popuar product placement practice according to most of the practtitioners and scholars. It has became is one of the classic examples of successful product placement that was part of many marketing books, articles and blog posts. Especially, writers who have been advocating to involving in a successful movie or TV series for a really top product placement used Reese’s Pieces’ example.

A story behind this product placement also made this practice the most popular one. According to Jean-Marc Lehu’s book Branded Entertainment (2007), there were two brands involved in this process: the big M&M’s and a relatively unknown Reese’s Pieces. Jean-Marc Lehu claimed that; Steven Spielberg had initially made contact with the brand leader Mars, to ask permission to use M&M’s, but Mars declined the offer. Probably they’ve thought that it was not worthwhile. Spielberg then decided to film the scene with Reese’s Pieces from Mars’ competitor Hershey. When the movie was finished it was Spielberg who proposed a tie-in promotion to Hershey, which they accepted. Reese’s Pieces participated in the film’s launch campaign, investing $1 million and in return it was allowed to use the film in its advertising campaigns.

The result was fascinating! Reese’s Pieces started to be known as UFO’s candies and Reese’s Pieces saw a reported 65 % jump in profits just two weeks after the movie’s premiere

PRODUCT placement_et

Screen shot from E.T.

  • FedEx in Cast Away

Another famous brand placement example is FedEx In Cast Away. In the movie, Tom Hanks is Chuck, a FedEx employee who is stranded on an island after FedEx’s plane crashes on a flight over the South Pacific. The film shows his attempts to survive on the island using leftovers of his plane’s cargo, as well as his eventual escape and return to society.

Comparing to first example (Reese’s Pieces in E.T.) that kind of placement can be a little extreme because of following reasons:

  • You don’t really want the plane with your logo to crash into the ocean.
  • Almost all cargo was lost, an employee opened several packages, even though he wasn’t authorized to do so
  • One lost parcel was delivered with a very long delay.

Despite all of these risks FedEx pulled it off very good. After the movie, several executives from FedEx talked about that product placement practicve. For instance, director of global brand management Gayle Christensen, director told that; the scene in which the FedEx plane crashes into the ocean, gave the company“a heart attack at first.” Moreover, he admitted that; they didn’t pay for product placement, they provided logistical support for the movie.  He also added that; “The greatest impact for us was not in the U.S. since our brand awareness in the U.S. is very high, where we did see a difference is offshore, in Asia and in Europe, where our brand awareness was not as high.

 PRODUCT placement_fedex

  • Junior Mints in Seinfeld 

First and second examples are given from movies. In this part a well-known example from TV episodes will be given. The Junior Mint’s product placement in Seinfield showed that product placement can also be so well done that it can get a brand name in the title of a TV episode (20thepisode of the Season 4 – The episode is called The Junior Mint)

Junior Mints’ (an American candy consisting of small rounds of mint filling inside a dark chocolate coating) role in the Seinfeld episode was included three types of product placement: the name of the brand was mentioned several times, the product was visible for a few seconds and one of the main characters has even eaten the candies.

Product placement was subject to a hilarous secene between Jerry and Kramer; when Jerry and Kramer observed the surgery of Elaine’s friend Roy, Jerry refused to take Junior Mints from Kramer and somehow the latter dropped it into the patient. Soon after the surgery Roy’s condition deteriorated, but eventually improved. The doctor thought that the reason was “something from above.”

The candy was also included in several conversations among the main characters. The funniest line came from Kramer who stated: “Who’s gonna turn down a Junior Mint? It’s chocolate, it’s peppermint; it’s delicious!”

 PRODUCT placement_seinfeld

Junior Mints in Seinfeld (1993, Castle Rock Entertainment, screen capture)

  • McDonalds in Sims Game

In this section an example about product placement in a video game will be put forward. Since in-game advertising has been evaluated as holding many advantages including high levels of audience engagement, positive brand associations and the chance to reach members of the public who are hard to communicate with via other types of media.

One of most popular product placement practice in video gaming world was executed by EA (Electronic Arts) in 2002 with McDonald’s. Deal was consisting of including McDonalds’ products in Sims Online. The deal allowed Sims players to open their own McDonald’s kiosks, and then improve their game stats by consuming McDonald’s products. As stated in the previous paragraph placing brand in a video game led high levels of audience engagement and positive brand associations since each game player saw McDonalds as his/her own enterprise.

 PRODUCT placement_sims

Screen shot from Sims

  • Bubba Gump Shrimp in Forrest Gump

This example is also given from a movie but with a bit difference. In first and second examples (they are also from box office movies), product/brand placement is made for an already exist productbrand. However this example will mention about a brand that went into business after product placement made in Forrest Gump movie.

Forrest Gump was a major box-office success in 1994 and a fictional brand from the movie goes into restaurant business after the movie. This is called reverse product placement and while traditional product placement refers to integrating a real brand into a fictional environment, reverse product placement refers to creating a fictional brand in a fictional environment and then releasing it into the real world. In Forrest Gump case it was The Bubba Gump restaurant which was named after Gump and his friend Bubba

The first Bubba Gump Shrimp restaurant opened in 1996 in Monterey, California. Today there are 32 Bubba Gump restaurants worldwide.

PRODUCT placement_bubbagump


The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant in Times Square, New York City

Author: Z. Eren Kocyigit

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