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Course Leader for BA (Hons) Advertising, Dr Sevil Yesiloglu, explains the importance of smart product placement

Still from the television programme Stranger Things, showing Eleven sat with an electrode helmet by a table with a Coke can.
Still from the television programme Stranger Things, showing Eleven sat with an electrode helmet by a table with a Coke can.
Still from Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016)
Written by
Alex Brent
Published date
01 March 2021

On the 10th anniversary of the lifting of the ban on product placement in television, Dr Sevil Yesiloglu, Course Leader for BA (Hons) Advertising, reflects on what makes product placement effective, and what brands need to consider when choosing the programmes in which to feature their products. 

10 years ago, on 28 February, the ban on product placement in television programmes was lifted in the United Kingdom. This allowed brands, from food and drink to clothing, to pay for references and appearances of their products in television. 

Some limitations existed, with certain products not being allowed on the grounds of promoting unhealthy lifestyles such as alcohol and high-fat foods, a legal obligation on the part of broadcasters. Similarly, product placement would continue to be banned in BBC programmes, children’s television, and news and current affairs programming.

Advertising in television has proven to be very influential in driving awareness and purchase intentions, but a product that is poorly-placed or does not suit the show in which it appears can go unnoticed, or worse, leave a negative impression, and be ripe for criticism and even ridicule.

The tendency of bad product placement to jar with a viewer’s experience has been well-established, to the extent that it could become a memorable joke in the film Wayne’s World. Since MTV and now with the access afforded by streaming platform YouTube, music videos have also become heavily advertised spaces, and sometimes with similarly absurd results.

Still from the film Wayne's World, showing Wayne posing with a pizza from Pizza Hut.
Still from Wayne's World (Paramount, 1992)

In the time since the ban was lifted, television and the watching habits of viewers have undergone considerable changes. High-speed broadband and paid-for subscriptions to streaming services have meant that television programmes can now be viewed on demand and without ad breaks. Brands have therefore become more reliant on references within the programmes themselves, making effective placement all the more important.

For placement to be successful, the product must be well-suited to the programme in which it appears. This means it must complement the programme’s aesthetic style, themes, context or values. The same principle applies in film as it does in television – after all, luxury watches and cars might make sense for a James Bond film, but not The Hangover (unless for the sake of irony, of course).

In recent years, product placement has been enhanced by streaming services. With those streaming services including Amazon, Netflix and Hulu, product placement becomes way more sophisticated than ever before. With a great amount of data on viewers, streaming services can focus on personalised product placement that means products or brands’ names appear on a screen depending on who is watching.

One example of a television show that has used product placement well is the recent Netflix hit Stranger Things. The show, which strongly references 80’s horror and science fiction, features many products of this era that could likely evoke feelings of nostalgia, such as Reebok trainers based on their audience preferences, wants and needs. Eggo waffles, which appear prominently in the show, may not strictly be from the 80s, but they match well with the show’s sense of quirkiness and fun.

These days, with a greater awareness of advertising, audiences may have a tendency to avoid ads altogether. For this reason product placement, when used correctly, can provide a significant alternative for brands to affect a person’s attitude – positively.  The lifting of the ban may have prompted concerns about trust in broadcasting, but the right attention to both ethical considerations and appropriate placement can allow brands to be both responsible and impactful.

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