Product Placement Impacts You — Even When You’re Aware of It

Alternate title: How product placement can affect everyday decision-making — more specifically, how even I, a self-aware, independent individual [accidentally] fell for a fictitious character’s recommendation after re-watching the 1995 rom-com Clueless, and thereby proving that product placement can be more than just a joke.

In the world of American entertainment, we are no strangers to product placement. It’s become so integrated into our society that it gets made fun of ironically — with more product placement. From subtle appearances like Nike in Back to the Future 2 to Wayne’s World’s infamous scene where they don’t want to sell out with Pizza Hut and Reebok, we are immersed in advertisements.

[Side note: I know those are both 90s movies, but that’s the recurring theme of this post. For something more current, check out the product placement overload in Man of Steel.]

Product placement ads add small reminders called brand recall to your life. And if used strategically, they can act as a referral that vouches for the product.

U.S. product placement increased 13.7% in 2017 and continues to grow. This is because product placement has a pattern of very positive results. Now, you may love them, or you may make fun of them with your friends, but that’s the point. You’re talking about the brand, which is what the company wants — to be at the front of your mind.

Photo: Rotten Tomatoes

It’s probably been about 10 years since I sat down and watched Clueless, but I was thinking about how Paul Rudd doesn’t age… and well, here we are. As I watched this funny movie with my developed marketing mindset, three things stood out:

1. Some of the product placement goes unnoticed because it fits the setting. These are stores in the mall, shopping bags, cars, etc. And honestly, it’s perfect because it fits the setting of the movie: wealthy teenagers in 1995 Beverly Hills, California. Of course, they’ll go to a mall and wear designer clothing. Seeing them immersed in fashion makes perfect sense.

2. There is blatant product placement [that felt out of place] just twice.

First is when Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is looking for a potential girlfriend for her debate teacher, we watch her first-person perspective as she makes her way through the teacher’s lounge. Suddenly, she gets distracted by a Snickers bar — then pauses and returns to her mission.

The second is a Mentos commercial when Ty (Brittany Murphy) turns on the television and watches/sings along with the classic 90s Mentos commercial song (i.e., “Mentos fresh and full of life”).

Both are slightly awkward, but surprisingly fit the characters, so I let it pass.

3. The majority of the product placement is spoken. From designers like Calvin Klein to breakfast foods like Special K, the script is filled with product name dropping left and right, but always causally. So casually, in fact, that I can’t even guarantee that these companies/people are placed advertisements, or just used to fit the story.

My favorites include:

    • “Buns of Steel” exercise videos
    • Marky Mark (now Mark Wahlberg)
    • CliffsNotes
    • Snapple (lemon-flavored)
    • Billie Holiday
    • Hamlet (specifically the 1990 version, which Cher only watched because of Mel Gibson)

Fast forward to this morning, as I stopped at the drug store to get a few things. As I was deciding if I should get a soda to take to the office, I passed by an end-cap full of Snapple. I stopped and knowingly thought This is what Cher would have with her lunch. I must admit that it is way healthier than soda.

I opted for peach over lemon, but I still made the purchase based off a fictional character’s preference — not even from a blunt visual like the Snickers bar, but from a fly-by comment about Snapple.

How did this happen? As a female young adult living in a city, I am its target demographic. The advertising in this movie was aimed at me and others who essentially idolize Cher, or maybe young Alicia Silverstone. (I did binge watch old Aerosmith music videos after the movie.) Maybe it was a little bit of that, but don’t forget one of the most important steps in the consumer journey: Consideration (or Evaluation). I’m trying to drink healthier, and I was triggered by the end-cap to recall a memory of someone saying they liked Snapple. I then rationalized it with the consideration that it actually was a healthier alternative to soda.

Opportunity met brand awareness and familiarity to solidify my decision to purchase. Looking back, the name-drop worked a bit like word-of-mouth marketing — a recommendation from someone I trusted.