Issue: How does product placement affect the credibility of the media property and the brand?
Commentary by: David
A typical product placement – this one on the season finale of NUMB3RS – raises the question for us of the effect of paid but undisclosed endorsement on brand equity. In this case, the placed product was a Dyson vacuum cleaner. The product was well integrated into the story line. The premise for this series is an FBI agent whose brother is a genius mathematician. In this storyline, the mathematician brother points to the Dyson vacuum and describes how its vortex suction works, then moves on to a mathematically similar method for solving the crime at hand. This is about as good as product placement gets since the Dyson is woven into the plot and the character takes a moment to explain the product. Dyson supplemented the placement with advertising (which we have reviewed previously here) which reinforces the brand message.
Two things tip us off to the fact that we are witnessing a paid product placement – one is integral to the placement itself, the other is not. The unavoidable tip-off is the appearance of the Dyson with the logo in closeup. The avoidable tell is the presence of Dyson ads during the episode. Both work together to make the placement memorable but evident. And therein lies the problem.
Product placement is a tricky game. It is a combination of advertising and publicity. It is advertising because it is paid for and not ‘earned,’ as news stories featuring brands are considered to be. On the other hand, product placement has the implied endorsement benefit that can work harder than advertising if it is handled correctly, and in this way it is more like PR. To work well, though, this paid endorsement must look like unpaid, naturally occuring story content. The more brazen and obvious a product placement, the less authentic it feels. When a product placement is too glaring or evident (as some of the placements on The Apprentice have been deemed to be), it loses the implied endorsement benefit and may actually generate a backlash.
The problem is that product placement is paid advertising, not unpaid endorsement. So making it work effectively means deceiving consumers to keep them from understanding the relationship between the brands featured on a television show (or in a movie) and the producers of that entertainment. And deceiving the consumers has many perils, not the least of which is the peril to the brand if the paid placement is revealed.
This creates a real problem for any enduring brand. Yes, it may be very straightforward to buy placement for a brand and that placement may help strengthen the brand equity. But if the increase in consumer interest comes as a result of deceiving the consumer, then the advertiser may risk suffering a significant backlash if the commercial relationship between the media property and the brand is revealed. In most cases, it is the opinion of this advertising blog that the risk is not worth the effort at deception. Unless the placement can be openly disclosed, but still effective (like Tiger Woods wearing Nike which is an open paid placement and endorsement), the brand benefits at great peril. Although it may work for some period of time, deceiving the consumer is bad business.