Product Placement:  Anatomy Of An Interview With A Reporter


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Our agency is often interviewed by reporters about product placement or celebrity brand partnerships and has been a repeated go-to for a number of outlets over the years.

Tragically, in our opinion at least, not every interview we give ends up being written in a story, and we thought we'd share an inside look at one such recent case - while answering an important question about Product Placement that often comes up.  In this blog post we provide an answer to the question: Why would a brand appear on screen without the producer requiring a fee to be paid?


The Reporter Reaches Out:  Why Product Placement Is Such A Win For Costco And Arby's In FX's Baskets 


For privacy, certain details have to be redacted.

"Hi. I'm a ###-based freelance writer, and contract correspondent for ### (a prominent magazine) specializing in TV. I'm looking for an expert to interview about the FX comedy Baskets, which has an unusual relationship with Costco. One character's love for her store is a continuing storyline. Adweek wrote about it already, but it's unusual enough that I'm still interested in a piece. Here's (a link to) that story for background."

Our Initial Response 

Hi ### – thanks for reaching out.  Good old-fashioned “product placement”!  Heightened of course by production to become a storyline. 

I've (and my clients) had the very good fortune to have that happen for numerous clients over the years – from Ben & Jerry’s in Everybody Loves Raymond (with a location visit) as well as another location shoot with Renee Zellweger and Jim Carrey in Me, Myself and Irene; Canadian Club and Mad Men (can send you a video on that), Cinnabon and King of Queens; Burger King with Tom Hanks in The Terminal; Coffee Beanery becoming a 5 episode location and employer of Jimmy with Shameless.  And countless other large storylines that were created not initially by dollars, but by production’s need to have authenticity as well as easy usage of the product, and the brand’s full support of that production by providing location build-out materials like signage and products.

It is invaluable to have a brand on board with a production – to not only save them time and resources (which is money) by easing their clearance issues – where they have to have EVERYTHING signed off on by approval of a brand if it shows up on screen and then of course just supplying the needed products. 

And then that word – authenticity.  Having a brand that is real and organically integrated into production makes the content more realistic and familiar to viewers versus having a fake brand stand out to viewers.

But it also takes A LOT of trust from a brand that usually doesn’t get to see every single scripted element for pre-approval.

In reality – 90%+ of what you see on TV or in feature films today is in exactly the same vein, to different levels.  From BlackBerry phones that lend authenticity to characters who are businessmen or lawyers, to sports drinks like BODYARMOR which are naturally healthy recovery beverages that athletes in the know prefer over Gatorade – the list is endless.

We have dozens of blogs covering the topic of product placement, here are a few that I think might be helpful for your article. You can also look at and sort by Product Placement for others.

  • 10 reasons why brands do product placement
  • Animated video on product placement
  • Three reasons why productions want product placement

I’d be happy to either respond to your questions in writing if that makes it easier, or a call. 


The Reporter Asks Specific Questions

And a short time later...

"So, here are a few questions. Take as much or as little space as you need to answer. If you don't like these questions, ask your own and answer them. Thanks very much for helping out. This is an odd one, in that the show can be a bit perverse. Not to spoil anything in case you haven't watched, but the character who loves Costco is a woman played by comic Louie Anderson. She visits the store in an upcoming episode, and I read it (I have preview streams) as sweet and lyrical, but I'm not sure that's the universal reaction.  

I think the show is quirky – at least in the first two episodes it hasn’t been overtly raunchy in any way that is typically offensive to a brand.  The characters are kind of sad, but still relatable and they have good comedic timing.  You want to root for them."

Question #1

Is there any risk for a brand -- such as in the case of CC and Mad Men -- to affiliate with a heat-seeking project? (And tell me in detail how that specific deal happened, please.) 

Our agency was representing several brands from Beam Global, and introducing the brands to relevant TV shows and feature films (Tres Generaciones with How To Make It In America, Jim Beam with Justified, etc).  Our agency has extremely strong relationships with producers, directors, prop masters, set decorators, stylists, and transportation captains, amongst others, and in this specific instance, our team was working with the prop master on Mad Men, and exploring options for our brand clients that existed in the 1960’s. 

The conversations led to production asking if we would be interested in providing period Canadian Club bottles for them to shoot with.  At the same time, they spoke with other companies as well for various alcohol brands, but our agency was able to jump through hoops and provide those period-specific bottles and cardboard cases with appropriate labels (in fact, we obtained the artwork from the client, printed labels and glued them on ourselves!)  We were in the right place, talking to the right people, with a client who had an interest and was able to react very quickly to specific needs. That’s why brands benefit from working with placement agencies…strong relationships and turnkey capabilities for last-minute opportunities.

 See this link for more specific details and this link for a video summary. 

Question #2

Is there usually an upside-downside conversation before approval, and what does that sound like? 

For a film or a TV show, we typically receive a script or will go into the studio/production company and read either the entire script or if it is in lock-down (usually just the super big blockbuster action films), then the portion of the script relevant to the client.  We vet the opportunity to ensure the positive outweighs the negative.  Typically productions are not seeking to defame a brand – they know that whatever project they are working on is not their last and that they may need to have that relationship again in the future.  This leads to really open conversations about the direction of how the brand is going to be featured, and discussion of anything that might be perceived as risky. 

As a side note, with a placement agency involved, there is more expertise based on experience to look out for those negatives that might pop up, and usually, a faster process in general based on familiarity with the production process and lingo.

Cast and the characters they play are discussed, requests to not be included in certain scenes that might be against the brand will be made, and anything controversial is at this time discussed – if it is even known.  Sometimes with TV, production can be so early in the process that scripts don’t exist yet.

Some brands are extremely sensitive and will ask to review everything over and over again – and also ask for sign-off on all things scripted - which is detrimental in the eyes of the production, as they don’t want their creative freedom limited.  Those brands typically don’t get the big over the top exposures, unless the production is really getting something great from it – like money or a big media promotion. 


Question #3

In this case, no money changes hands. It's just approval to use the Costco and Kirkland brands. From the material you sent me, this doesn't sound that unusual. Is it? 

It’s not unusual at all.  Most of the brands seen on TV and in film are on loan to the production, or provided in trade.  Productions save money by not having to purchase products, and they also save time by working with production-friendly brands who have turnkey programs in place to provide the gratis product AND clearance that is needed for a brand to appear on screen. On top of that, if a production ‘fakes’ a brand, it really stands out on screen and viewers at home typically get more annoyed by the fake than they do to a real brand lending realism to a scene.

There are all sorts of levels to product placement – from a BlackBerry phone loaned for a scene, to pallets of water provided to the craft services for cast and crew to drink, to cars that are specifically provided for production to destroy, to airplanes or even locations that would cost a bundle to shoot at.  These all fall under “product placement” – and the only difference with “brand integration” is that a cold hard cash fee is not paid.  I’ve been in this business for over 20 years.  There is no difference between a paid and a non-paid placement, except for the contracts and negotiations that go into guaranteeing the fee will be paid for on screen success.  Media agencies often position the practice as different, but for the product placement and entertainment marketing agencies that have been doing this for decades, it’s all exactly the same.  The only difference is ad sales have realized that they can leverage media buys with guaranteed integration into content.  Leverage a relationship to get a product onto the screen for free, pay dollars to heighten the exposure, or create a cross-promotional strategy leveraging a brands media or retail point of sale to strengthen the on screen exposure.  It all comes down to finding realistic, organic opportunities that are helpful to the production and helpful to the brand being featured. 


In the case of Costco, beyond approval to use the Costco and Kirkland brands, there was signage and product supplied, a mass merchant location provided to shoot in (do you realize how time intensive and expensive that is to build from scratch?!?), and likely product for cast/crew to eat and drink.  Costco doesn't comment -- at least to me -- on this, which is OK. But it's weird to me that someone there doesn't want to explain this, and what they think about their decision now. Is it typical for brands to not discuss their approvals in cases like this?

Costco may not be commenting because the person responsible for signing off may not even be there anymore – this show was shot before July 2014.  I went back through our files and realized the Duke’s and Big's product placement exposure that was in the background of a scene in the pilot was secured by our agency early that year. It took a bit of time to actually air.  A lot longer than typical actually for TV.  Also, so many brands are sensitive about commenting on anything – no one wants to risk their job if they are not an authorized spokesperson for the corporation.  They also haven’t seen the entire season play out, as it is two episodes in, and are likely just starting to see social media commentary and feedback from customers.  They may be a bit nervous about how the series will vet out, as well as their exposure, and waiting on the sidelines to comment until they are on surer ground.

There is nothing shown so far in the series that is even remotely negative – in fact, Costco’s exposure is relevant and fits well into the quirkiness of the show and the feel of the “Napoleon Dynamite” typecast characters.  Making a mass merchant box store into something interesting to talk about on TV is going to have comedic moments.

 That's plenty. Thanks. You've been very helpful. 


Is Your Brand Ready For Product Placement?

Have you ever wondered how a comprehensive product placement program works? Or do you want to know how to create a promotional partnership strategy with a movie partner? This video will answer all of your questions as it shows the steps and processes taken by Hollywood Branded that lead to your brand increasing both consumer engagement and sales!

How Product Placement Works Video