The History and Role of Advertising in Movies

The relationship of movies and advertising goes back a long way. Advertising has been on films since their inception – in one form or another. In this article I take a look at the history of movies and advertising before looking at the ways advertising is used in films today. The relationship between marketing and films is a close one and you’d be amazed at how much money gets spread around from advertisers to movies.

                Before we turn to look at the modern era of movies and advertising we can take a long step back until before films first came about to the use of product placement in……..wait for it…………………… books! Believe it or not companies used to pay large sums to be featured in books and to get the additional press and public attention this would bring. For example Jules Verne is rumoured to have been hounded by mining and industrial companies who wanted to be featured in his “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. The history of product placement in books gives us a telling insight into the relationship between movies and advertising with; product placements – as we shall discuss momentarily; being integral to the relationship between movies and advertising.

                So how does product placement work? In essence product placement is simply the positioning of advertisements within films. Historically this was a usually an overt reference within a script to a particular brand and cigarette advertising was the most common – hence why all the famous movie stars of yesteryear smoked on screen. Some reference to a product would be worked into the actual movie script in exchange for funding from the company. The movie got its money and the advertisers got extensive exposure. This kind of integrated product placement went on for some time. The idea behind it is that a company can create positive associations for their products. If Audrey Hepburn were smoking a certain brand of cigarette or wearing a certain fashion designers latest outfits people would associate Audrey Hepburn – the epitome of cool, sexy and savvy in the 30’s and 40’s – with their brand. They then buy the brand in order to emulate Audrey Hepburn. This represents the basic role of product placement in movies and is still at the core of movies and advertising to this day. Product placement works by making you associate a product with an ideal; the ideal can be to be like a star, to be cool, to be sexy or to be suave and sophisticated.

                However, this historical use of product placement has been developed and extended over time and now takes on a much more complex role in advertising itself. Product placement now is a multi-billion dollar industry and product placement occurs in everything – from the drink the main character takes from the fridge to the car they drive. If you see a product in a film then someone has paid for it to be there. They’ve probably paid quite a lot too. So in modern films these positive associations we talked about earlier have been extended to be included in everything. They are often not directly represented but form part of the mis-en-scene of a film – creating connotations and positive associations that target the sub-conscious more than the conscious. A classic example of tis is in the film Goldeneye. In the film Pierce Brosnan drives a tank through a truck full of Perrier water. This implants the image of Perrier water firmly in our minds and exposes us to the brand. The direct purchasing effects of this form of advertising may be minimal but we are still being exposed to the brand and are more likely to make a purchase the next time we see Perrier water next to a competitor. This effect has been widely demonstrated and statistically analysed and we know that these connotation do influence buying power.

                You may be wondering what the benefits are for movie producers. Simply put the average film now costs over 100 Million USD to create. The majority of this money now comes from advertising with companies paying up to 10 million dollars for key and integrated product placements. Advertising funds much of the television and film industry and this relationship helps keep Hollywood afloat. Direct product placements still occur, i.e. ones that are overtly mentioned for example “Oh what car I that you’re driving” “It’s an Austin Martin”, however they are less common. This is because the overexposure of consumers to direct advertising often makes them have a negative reaction to direct product placements. This is because we recognise it as a direct movie advertising ploy and resent its invasion on our film viewing – which is, essentially, an escapism activity in which we leave the real world for a time. This has meant subtle product placement has become the most effective way of exposing a band to movie patrons.

                However, there is also another level to the relationship between movies and advertising that is worth exploring. This is the relationship of sponsorship and company associations to popular film. In the history of film the Star Wars franchise has been the most successful at integrating sponsorship and advertising. The Star Wars brand has appeared on everything from coffee cups to restaurants and has been one of the most successful franchises in history. The success of the films meant that everyone wanted to associate their brand with Star Wars. The films grossed millions of dollars a day and the brand associations people created were incredible. One of the key techniques companies used was to tie in their own products with Star Wars merchandise – free toys, free stickers and free posters help draw in thousands of new customers and companies are prepared to pay millions of dollars for this privilege. They can attract anyone who likes the films with a freebie and in exchange the movies and the product licenser’s get a huge influx of funding.

                The relationship of movies and advertising is an incredibly close one and, as we have seen, movies offer thousands of opportunities for product placement and sponsorship. Consumers may find advertising in movies tiresome and annoying but for companies they help generate brand identity and, at the bottom line, business.