The Most Egregiously Bad Product Placement You’ll Ever See–And How To Do It Right

Product placement has become an increasingly popular way for brands to increase awareness, preference, and loyalty. But it can be done so badly it sets your teeth on edge (and we’ve got proof). Here’s how to do it right.

As viewers DVR through commercials, put themselves on “do not call” lists, and set their browsers to limit tracking, product placement (placing a product into a TV series or movie) has become an increasingly popular way for brands to increase awareness, preference, and loyalty. How popular? American Idol alone had 577 placements in 39 episodes in 2011. Product placement also links the brand to the image of the show and is able to be illustrate the product being used in “real-world” situations by celebrities. Lastly, with multi-screen viewing and social media use increasing, product placement has the opportunity to further amplify the brand’s message.


Generally a brand has to pay a pretty penny to get on popular shows and in movies. Getting a brand in a blockbuster movie can cost millions and placing a brand in a series usually isn’t cheap, either (even if it looks like it). So it makes sense to follow some important guidelines in order to get the best return on your investment.

1) Determine your goal and strategy.

Before employing any marketing tactic, it’s key to determine what you hope to gain from using it: brand awareness? increased preference? brand loyalty? Which shows will best exemplify your brand’s image and have the reach you need? Lastly, how will this product placement integrate with your larger marketing campaign? Answering these questions will help you clarify your approach and inform the type of product placement you do (or if product placement is appropriate at all).

Coke, for instance, has been featured on American Idol since the beginning of the show. The partnership makes sense for Coke since a) Coke has the goal of always being present in the daily life of consumers and American Idol is extremely popular, b) the Coke brand is strongly tied to the idea of “America,” and c) having the Coke cups on the judges’ table looks quite natural, kind of like a mug on the desk of a talk-show host.

An important point here to take away is the long-term partnership between Coke and Idol. Just popping in and out of different shows may meet your needs, but being a constant presence on one over a long period (in this case, 11 years) strongly reinforces the link between the image of the show and your brand.


2) Don’t just be in show; shoot for plot integration.
When brands just appear in a show and have no link to the storyline, the placement is at best just a quick reinforcement of the brand to the consumer. Poorly done, it can be jarring, distracting viewers from the show and potentially hurt the brand’s image.

One example of good integration is Target’s product placement in the “Express Christmas” episode of Modern Family. Claire and her daughter Haley have to do some quick shopping to save the day and so run to Target to get everything on their list. It’s a fun scene, makes sense to the viewer, wasn’t overdone, and got Target lots of brand visibility.

3) Don’t overdo it.
Here’s a brand that did. It’s cringe-worthy. Enough said.


4) Don’t get lost in the crowd.
With so many brands moving to product placement and lots of shows employing it heavily, there’s the danger of just being one brand among many and not being noticed. Look at which venues are not only popular and reinforce your brand, but also do the best job at integrating brands and not overdoing product placement. There’s a fine line between fitting seamlessly into the show and getting recognized and liked, versus getting lost in the shuffle.

5) Be so great you get placed for free.
Okay, there’s not a lot of brands that can do this but, of course, Apple is one. It dominated an entire episode of Modern Family, revolving around Phil’s birthday, his desire for an iPad, and the product’s release. Quite a coup, if you can pull it off. Other brands, like Mini in the Italian Job and Wonderbread in Talledega Nights, have managed to do it as well–so, it can be done.

6) Look beyond TV and movies to music videos and video games.

The explosion of music videos and video games creates new opportunities for brands. For example, Lady Gaga is not only the Queen of Pop but also the queen of product placement. In her hit song Poker Face she features the gaming site halfway through. In Bad Romance, she was able to fit in seven placements in a short five-and-a-half minutes. Video games that feature car racing, car chases, sports stadiums, etc., also provide an excellent venue for placements.

7) Don’t get dissed.
Obviously, the more you pay for the placement, the more influence you may have over how it is portrayed. But there are limits. What you want to ensure is that, after paying all that money, your brand does not get shown in a poor light. While there are rumors that California will be paying for positive placements to encourage residents to sign up for Obamacare in the future, this scene on Modern Family is probably not something they would want to have happen.


8) Track and measure.
It’s exciting to see your brand on your favorite show and get notes from friends and employees giving you high fives. But to see if the tactic really paid off, you need to look at the metrics. For example, this Purell product placement on The Big Bang Theory had the highest recall of any placement in 2011 per Nielsen. Other metrics are available, and your placement agency should provide them on a regular basis and explain the results.

Product placements have been around for a long time (one of the first was by Hershey’s, getting a candy bar featured in the silent movie Wings in 1927) and the number of product placements and venues to feature them will only grow. Be savvy and use the guidelines above for success.

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–Mark McNeilly is the author of three books including Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers and an adjunct professor of marketing at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo. You can follow him at @markmcneilly or learn more at


[Image: Flickr user Henning Mühlinghaus]


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo