Product Placement Revealed as “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” Debuts at Sundance

At Sundance, this past weekend, Morgan Spurlock debuted his latest documentary, entitled “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”.  The film documents Spurlock’s journey to gather product placement funds from brands to…fund his film about product placement in films.  Yes, extremely meta.  Part of the film explains the process behind how brands wind up in films, but based on reviews it seems like it focused more on his quest to gather funding from brands for a documentary that, at its core, portrays them in a comical light.  Equally interesting, Spurlock tackles the process behind cross-promotion and co-branded advertising, by including clips of himself appearing on late night talks shows promoting the movie.  Slash Film sums it up best, “…essentially, we’re watching a movie about the making of the movie we’re watching…”.  Watch an in-depth interview about the film with Spurlock here.

Product placement in films is an interesting topic.  It dates all the way back to the early 20’s, but didn’t start to really find it’s footing until the 80s and 90s with films like E.T. (Reece’s Pieces), The Wizard (Nintendo), Back to the Future II (Nike), etc.  Since then product placement has reached grotesque levels, helped largely by filmmakers like Michael Bay who currently holds the record with 47 product placements in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  This begs the question, do brands really benefit from product placement, especially when they’re next to several dozen other players, oftentimes even their competitors?

Let’s dive into a bit of research.  The best study I read was called, “Investigating the Effectiveness of Product Placements in Television Shows: The Role of Modality and Plot Connection Congruence on Brand Memory and Attitude”.  It was led by Cristel Antonia Russel, and published in 2002 in the Journal of Consumer Research.  You can find it through Google Scholar.  Without going into unnecessary depths, the study shows that brand retention or recall improves when plot connection and modality of product presentation don’t match, because this requires the brain to do more processing work.  However, persuasion improves when these two variables are congruent.  So, what’s this all mean?  Essentially, they’re saying that when the brand is very smoothly integrated into the plot (congruence) for example in Casino Royale when James Bond makes up a drink with Bacardi in it, retention is lower.  However, when placement is incongruous with the plot, as in Wayne’s World 2 when Wayne and Garth both shameless plug Pizza Hut, Doritios and Reebok in a tongue-in-cheek manner (an extreme example), retention is higher.  However, the downside to this is that this sort of obtuse placement lowers persuasion among consumers, because it comes across as disingenuous.   There are clear ups and downs to both approaches.  In short, product placement has become another way for brands to capture or maintain mindshare in an increasingly cluttered world where less and less people are watching traditional advertisements.

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