When does product placement annoy, when does it give you joy?


I was watching Chuck the other day and our favourite spies dropped in a reference to Microsoft’s cloud storage service – Skydrive. The reference jarred for any number of reasons: first, Skydrive?  Everyone knows Chuck would use Dropbox if given the choice . Second, they’re the CIA – they use a public cloud service? Didn’t they get the memo on the Federal Community Cloud?

Geekiness aside, I think the principle objection I had was one of subtlety; this is one of many clumsy modern references to sponsor products. Chuck also takes a chunk of cash from Subway, resulting in (amongst other people) the massively chubby store manager/assistant store manager, "Big Mike" chowing down on the latest sandwich chain from the fast (or is it fresh?) food chain (odd choice there, guys, after your years of working with Jared). I actually quite like Chuck’s veiled references to Alienware – at least I think that all the computers that Orion left for the family Bartowski were Alienware machines – because they allude to the awesomeness without writing it ‘on the nose’ – as Robert McKee would have otherwise complained (see commandment 9).

I’m probably more forgiving – and more aware – of product placement than most, but the ‘on the nose’ model of product placement always winds me up slightly. Nokia’s presence in the Star Trek reboot  for example – whilst the product wasn’t mentioned, the 23rd Century Nokia ringtone was just annoying. Ditto for the Bond films – every product is shot as lasciviously as they film Daniel Craig’s pectoral muscles.

I think product placement has so much more power when its incidental – and, in the case of the BBC, accidental (the beeb is not allowed to do sponsored product placement, despite the relaxing of that law for commercial TV in the UK). Although, that obviously cuts both ways – when I noticed Evil Janine from Eastenders using an Android phone last night it made me question the goodness of Google (not really, but, y’know)…

That said; if I used the products in question (if had had been Evernote or Dropbox) would I have been more forgiving? That glint of recognition that makes me feel validated in my choice of product or service? Perhaps. But then this isn’t an exercise in customer acquisition, its one of retention…

So my top tips on product placement, from a consumer’s perspective:

  1. Subtlety wins out over blatant plugs
  2. Brand relevance! How exactly do you want to position the product/service
  3. Minimise the cringe factor
  4. Context is vital. If it jars with the characters/plot of the show, fans will resent you instead of admire you
  5. It’s probably more about validating your existing customers and maybe – subliminally (although that’s definitely not allowed) influencing prospective customers – than about wholesale customer acquisition.

What do other people think? Would you be more likely to desire/buy a product if your favourite character on your favourite show was using it? Or would it only work if you already had it?