Buyers foster Hollywood connection

Tony Soprano's ratfink goombah is crouched down in a parked car, shooting off his mouth to an FBI agent. Outside the window, we see an Office Depot store. 'Youse want me to wear a wire?' grunts the goombah. 'Yeah,' replies the feebie. 'Need batteries? Let's get some at Office Depot.' Fade to black.
Product placement? Fuhgeddaboudit. Getting your brand actually written into the script of a huge hit like The Sopranos is an even bigger deal than having its characters handle or consume your products on-screen - theoretically persuading viewers to do likewise.

Tony Soprano’s ratfink goombah is crouched down in a parked car, shooting off his mouth to an FBI agent. Outside the window, we see an Office Depot store. ‘Youse want me to wear a wire?’ grunts the goombah. ‘Yeah,’ replies the feebie. ‘Need batteries? Let’s get some at Office Depot.’ Fade to black.

Product placement? Fuhgeddaboudit. Getting your brand actually written into the script of a huge hit like The Sopranos is an even bigger deal than having its characters handle or consume your products on-screen – theoretically persuading viewers to do likewise.

Granted, folks with a weakness for mafia quips might conjecture that the benefit of the Sopranos’ connection to the Office Depot brand is the subliminal message: buy from us or you might get whacked.

But the real story isn’t that a marketer made the leap from mere advertiser to twinkling co-star. The actual scoop is how the media ‘under-bosses’ are helping to drive that mode of brand exposure by forming partnerships with product placement and entertainment tie-in agencies.

According to Philip Hart, founder and president of Toronto-based MMI Product Placement, it’s about time Canadian buyers and marketers got in on the action, and he’s hired ACNielsen to prove it – with what he says is the first Canadian study of consumer attitudes toward such marketing techniques.

With focus groups beginning next week, Hart says the goal is ‘to take product placement to the next level, and add to its legitimacy in this country, by determining behavioural patterns, effectiveness, whether people enjoy or are offended [by seeing brands on screen] and how much is too much.’

The ultimate goal? ‘When we have the results, we’ll be able to go to the marketing community and say, ‘This is what the research indicates. What are we going to do next?”

So far, made-in-Canada examples of big-screen product integration are few, but there are signals that will change – especially as the placements executed to date seem to have gone well.

For instance, a Canadian product placement bonanza was achieved for Men With Brooms, which has grossed $4 million since its April release. This makes it the biggest domestic hit in two decades, according to Mark Musselman, head of business and legal affairs for Toronto’s Serendipity Point Films, which produced the Paul Gross-starring feature film.

What Musselman calls ‘major deals’ were struck with CIBC, CBC and Famous Players, as well as smaller-scale participation by multiple manufacturers and suppliers of products associated with the sport of curling (the movie’s centrepiece).

Bruce Neve, senior VP, managing director at Toronto’s The Media Edge, says there will be many more such partnerships to come, thanks to a combination of powerful factors. One is the sobering reality that, ‘thanks to fragmentation and a host of other factors, it’s never been easier to spend a huge budget and still be invisible in the marketplace.’

Then there’s the looming threat of ad-skipping technology via PVRs such as TiVo and Replay – which are predicted to slowly but surely colonize Canadian living rooms in the years to come.

With the effectiveness of traditional on-screen advertising looking increasingly iffy, product placement is taking on the aura of a heaven-sent solution. ‘Seeing a product in the hands of a celebrity is a powerful implied endorsement that’s delivered to a captive audience of consumers who’ve voluntarily chosen to watch,’ explains Nancie Tear, director of Vancouver’s PropStar Placements. ‘It can have such a deep, long-lasting impact that a nobody [product] can become a somebody overnight.’

Adds MMI’s Hart: ‘Inserting visual brand images into a feature film has an evergreen effect. First they’re seen in theatres, then on videocassette and DVD and then on network television. If the movie’s a big hit, millions of people will see the product placements. Even if it’s not [a hit], hundreds of thousands of people will still see them.’

Small wonder then that marketers are becoming excited enough about product placement that, as one prime example, fully a quarter of the US$160-million budget for Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (starring Tom Cruise) was covered by product placement fees for 15 brands including Lexus, American Express and the Gap.

All this explains the demand for media experts to evaluate the ever-increasing list of options and to act as guardians of their clients’ brands, says Hugh Dow, president of Toronto’s M2 Universal. ‘There’s an increasing realization that what media planners do in analyzing context and environment is critical.’

With opportunity knocking this loudly, even traditional media agencies are listening intently. And Starcom Worldwide is doing more than that, explains Scott Neslund, Toronto-based managing director: The company recently decided to beef up its portfolio of client services by fast-tracking client access to plum on-screen marketing opportunities.

That’s why Starcom formed a strategic alliance in June with Premier Entertainment Services, whose president of Canadian operations, David Newton, says the term ‘product placement’ is now being augmented by ‘product integration,’ a more appropriate moniker for brand-exposure campaigns that go far beyond what his company does in arranging for Tony Soprano to drink Coca-Cola and Glenfiddich, or dictating that his henchmen shop at Office Depot. Or even how Premier morphed and maximized the good luck enjoyed by another of its clients when the creator of My Big Fat Greek Wedding happened to write Windex into the script for what became a sleeper hit movie.

Exemplifying how media planners like Starcom work in tandem with product integration specialists like Premier is Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever, a Warner Bros. feature film that just rolled out Sept. 20.

Newton says multi-faceted promotions for client Harley-Davidson ‘were done on the backs of straightforward product placements’ in the action thriller. For starters, as rival spies, both Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu ride Harley-Davidson Buell motorcycles. In addition to a raft of media buys, on-screen promos for the bikes will be shown immediately before selected screenings in the U.S. These will offer audiences a contest with prizes ranging from Buell bikes, to movie-logo’d leather jackets, to Warner Bros. DVDs of the film.

In another Premier deal – this one for Austin Powers: Goldmember – Starbucks U.K., which is featured in the movie, timed the launch of its Frappuccino product to coincide with the movie’s release. In addition to being quaffed on screen by Mike Meyers, the product received such heavy print and online promotion, says Newton, that the rate of sampling-coupon redemption set a new record for the coffee purveyor, as did the number of Web site hits.

MMI’s Hart also holds up the latest Austin Powers as an example of how product integration can be taken to the max for ‘a straight-up grand slam marketing coup,’ but he’s more impressed with the mileage a different marketer got out of the franchise.

That client is Pepsi-Cola, which Hart calls one of the ‘pioneers’ of product placement. ‘They’ve had an army of media people working with all the studios for years to find the best [opportunities] for leveraging their brand in the right movies,’ he says. ‘With Austin Powers, they not only had Mike Meyers and Britney Spears drink Pepsi in the movie, they then used those scenes in their own TV commercials to launch Pepsi Twist in the U.S.’