sealPurdue News

June 1999

Films may carry a hidden pitch in the plot

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Moviegoers these days may leave the theater with something more than a few smiles and a plot line to rehash. A Purdue University consumer behavior expert says advertising by product placement on the big screen is hotter than ever and can influence consumers without them even realizing it.

"When we watch a movie or something on television, our defenses are down and we become more receptive to the messages that are coming at us," says Richard Heslin, a professor of psychology. "So this type of product placement is both a very effective 'niche' advertising tool and a bit unnerving at the same time."

Heslin says product placement in movies and television programs is particularly effective at increasing the overall awareness of a product, particularly within the audience targeted by the filmmakers. He says advertisers agree to pay big bucks because they know it's a great way to "soft sell."

"Certain brands of food or clothing used in major motion pictures, or power tools used on 'how-to' television shows, are integrated so carefully that the audience is unaware that their presence is a form of advertising," he says. "But in a magazine, for instance, advertisements are set apart from editorial portions, either by design or by being labeled as an advertisement."

Getting a product on the big screen isn't easy or cheap, according to Robert Bellock, senior marketing manager for industrial product manufacturer Pasload, an Illinois Tool Works company. Bellock, who spoke recently to a Purdue consumer behavior class, got into the product placement game several years ago with his company's powered nail-driving tool.

"We were looking for ways to market our very niche-oriented product in the early 1990s," he says. "And it turned out that the carpenters on the set of the film "Lethal Weapon II" were using our product to construct part of the movie set. The writers were looking for a unique weapon to fight the bad guys with, and our nail-driver happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Bellock has since spent a fair amount of both time and money pursuing other film and broadcast exposure opportunities for his product.

"'Lethal Weapon II' boosted the exposure we already had from television shows like 'This Old House' and attracted consideration for other films such as 'Groundhog Day' with Bill Murray and a couple of Bruce Willis action films."

Bellock says companies can expect to pay anywhere from $10,000 to more than $50,000 to get their product placed in a film or on television, depending on the exposure.

"It's a gamble though -- the clip featuring a product could end up on the cutting room floor, or the product could be used in a fashion you didn't like," Bellock says. "For example, our nail-driving tool was shut out of at least one foreign market for safety reasons because it was portrayed as a weapon in 'Lethal Weapon II.'"

Those types of unintended consequences should be considered by the advertiser going in, says Jonathan Bohlmann, marketing professor in the Krannert School of Management at Purdue.

"Advertisers seeking product placement in a film or on television generally have the advantage of knowing the targeted audience and the context in which the product will be featured," he says.

"Those are both advantages from a product marketing standpoint. That information can help better assess the likely outcome, and gauge the effectiveness of dollars spent on product placement."

Another reason that product placement can be effective on television is that consumers tend to 'tune out' or take a break during commercials, Bohlmann says. Having the product sandwiched into the entertainment programming can lead to greater audience attention.

"Of course, a lot depends on the quality and quantity of the products' exposure. As an advertising medium, product placement is still a gamble," he says, "but one that can probably pay off if managed correctly."

Sources: Richard Heslin, (765) 494-6891;

Robert Bellock, (800) 468-7403 ext. 7081

Jonathan Bohlmann, (765) 494-4466;

Writer: Kate Walker, (765) 494-2073;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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