Posted on September 08, 2009 | By lindstrom

ET couldn’t resist the lure of product placement: The Times 19 September 2009

Thoughts for the week: ET couldn’t resist the lure of product placement. And neither will you.

Daniel Finkelstein

Back at the beginning of the 1980s, the Mars Corporation made a big mistake. It was approached by the director Steven Spielberg, who said he was making a film, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Spielberg explained that there was a scene in the movie in which his hero, the young Elliott, discovers the creature hiding in the woods. He lures him out with sweets, laid in a trail leading to his house.

Would Mars like to pay for the sweets to be M&M’s? Mars replied that, no, it wouldn’t.

Hershey’s gave a different reply. So when Elliott drops his sweets, it is Reese’s Pieces that act as bait for ET. The result? Within a week of the film’s opening, sales of Reese’s Pieces tripled. And more than 800 cinemas across the United States began to stock the sweet for the first time.

Something similar happened to the sales of Ray-Ban sunglasses after Tom Cruise wore them in Top Gun.

This week, the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, announced a plan to allow product placement – the appearance of branded goods during programmes, for use, say, as props – on television. It is obvious why TV companies want this. But what about advertisers? Does product placement work? The ET story seems to wrap things up. Yes, of course it works. But Martin Lindstrom, who recounts the ET tale in his fascinating book Buyology, argues that it isn’t as simple as that.

Lindstrom’s interest, and the focus of his book, is what he calls neuromarketing. Not content with the traditional polling techniques – the survey, the focus group – neuromarketers want to look inside your head. Literally.

With the use of brain-scanning equipment, subjects have been tested, for instance, for their reaction to film trailers. A test of political reactions using campaign footage suggested the potency of fear as a determining factor in elections. The results persuaded the researchers that the technique could be used to design campaign ads.

Anyone concerned that politicians already use too much polling to guide their choices should note that the polling obsession might one day seem quaint.

So what does neuromarketing reveal about product placement? Using brain scans, Lindstrom tested reactions to the TV programme American Idol.

The programme featured three brands. The first was Coca-Cola. The show was saturated with the stuff. In front of each judge was a cup, the judges and contestants sat on chairs designed to look like Coke bottles, the contestants were filmed in a room painted Coke red, and so on.

Then there was Cingular Wireless (now AT&T), the only mobile phone carrier, as the host continually pointed out, that allowed viewers to text in their votes and whose logo was continually featured. The final sponsor, Ford, spent a fortune, but on traditional advertising spots specially designed for the programme (featuring its music, say, with contestants congregating around a Ford car).

The Lindstrom study attempted to discover whether the programme helped viewers to remember the logo of the featured companies more than those of the companies not featured.

The results were good news for Coke. Its product placement really seemed to work, planting the logo even more firmly in our brains. Cingular did well, too, but nowhere near as well as Coke. What about Ford? It wasted its money. Lindstrom notes that “in its post-programme test, we discovered that after viewing the shows, our subjects actually remembered less about the Ford commercials than they had before they entered the study”. They were drowned out by Coke.

How do neuromarketers account for this? Well, first, it is clear that traditional advertising has difficulty making an impact. By the time you are a pensioner you will have seen something in the region of two million TV commercials. If you are an average viewer, you will be able to recall about three of them.

Product placement, by contrast, can work. But it needs to be done with conviction. Lindstrom’s theory – but it is, in my view, just a theory – is that it is integration with the narrative that makes the crucial difference. Reese’s Pieces were part of the plot of ET. Ray-Bans were a big part of Tom Cruise’s cool image. And in American Idol Coke’s brand was weaved into the show. That was why, even though mentions were not as explicit, it did better (or so the author of Buyology suggests) than Cingular.

When product placement comes to your TV set, you are going to notice it. Because if you don’t, it won’t work.

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