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Bad Product Placement: When Brands Go Too Far

January 6th, 2020   ||    by Callie Wheeler

Some would argue bad product placement is simply any product placement. Hard to disguise, these in-program promotions can distract from the story momentarily but are an accepted element of modern television and movie viewing.

And yet, brands can still totally blow it. It seems audiences are only willing to put up with so much. Don’t make the same mistakes—with some thoughtful planning, you can decide if and how to leverage your brand in TV and film.

A Culture of Product Promotion

There’s an argument to be made that this is the age of product promotion. Brands now have at their disposal not only traditional advertising means, but can plant products in the shows we watch, the Instagram accounts we follow, and even the paparazzi photos that show up in our news feeds.

Kanye West’s Yeezy line debuted via paparazzi, with Kim Kardashian West wearing the brand’s clothing in a real-life product placement campaign that spanned weeks, reported VICE. And WIRED reported brands now regularly pay influencers tens of thousands, sometimes up to hundreds of thousands, of dollars to promote their products on Instagram or YouTube.

Authenticity Over Everything

So what crosses the line? Most instances of bad product placement have something in common: a real, or perceived, lack of authenticity. Everyone knows they’re being advertised to, but sometimes the ad is just too much of a leap for the audience.

Take Real Housewives of New York City‘s recent faux pas: an awkward in-program ad for Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson’s film The Hustle. As Vox shared, viewers felt “bamboozled” by fake, overly scripted dialogue between two characters, believing they would never have the conversation in real life.

Viewers did not take kindly to Netflix’s Murder Mystery product placement either. The movie featured Claritin prominently, prompting editorials like this one from Esquire to question not only the bizarre, clunky placement, but also to wonder how the placement benefits the brand.

Strategizing Your Placement

With these examples in mind, there’s an obvious place to start if you’re considering featuring a product in a movie, TV show, or influencer’s content: is product placement the right avenue? We know TV’s reach can’t be beat, and successes like ET‘s Reese’s Pieces or Stranger Things‘ Eggos make a strong case for this tactic.

But we also know traditional television commercials promote brand awareness and create validation in viewers’ minds. Weigh the pros and cons before embarking on what is likely a riskier option.

If you decide to roll the die, learn from bad product placement examples and focus on authenticity. Make sure the content aligns with your brand values, the message is believable (or funny), and the audience is receptive to hearing it.

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