Saturday, October 06, 2012

License to Sell

While it may not have started the movement, the appearance of Reese's Pieces in 1982's "E.T." has become the fulcrum for the modern product placement movement. Before that, labels would be removed or products "Greeked" so that a specific brand wasn't highlighted on the small or the big screen. In fact, it was just as likely that Ford or Coke would be extremely wary about letting their flagship brands be part of, and thereby associated with, a show or movie that featured violence or sex.

Then came one of the great miscalculations in advertising. When given the opportunity, Mars decided that an extraterrestrial was not the kind of pitchman they wanted for their cash cow, M&Ms. That left an opening for Hershey to provide the bait to lure the lovable alien into the open, and the world tilted. Depending on which account you read, sales for the candy jumped by a reported 65, 85, 300 percent or more. And never again would the products that appear on screen be the result of whatever the prop person had lying around.

Rather than an afterthought, or a "can we agree on a little upfront money in exchange for a little publicity," product placement has become an integral part of the financing itself. Be it computers or appliances, phones or watches, each appearance is negotiated and scripted. It's reached the current state-of-the-art whereby the new James Bond film "Skyfall" has a reported $28 million dollars in product placement deals, amounting to about a third of movie's cost. Forget license to kill: 007 has a license to sell.

You see it in almost every show or movie. Will Smith wears Converse. Pierce Brosnan drives a BMW. Sarah Jessica Parker collects Manolo Blahniks. Tom Cruise dons Ray-Ban's. It's even become shorthand for character development: cool girls have Macs, rugged guys drive Ford pickups. And speaking of Bond, James Bond, what does it say about the kind of secret agent that Daniel Craig is when he doesn't ask for a "vodka martini, shaken not stirred" but for a Heineken, and in the bottle no less.

Usually the items in question are front and center: food, cars and the like. That way producers can be sure that the logo or label appears prominently next to George Clooney or Sofia Vergara. In the case of clothes, if not the label, at least the design is distinctive enough to catch the eye of those in the know. But in a testament to power of a tie-in, CBS's hit drama "The Good Wife" has taken the next step. The show is moving beyond what the characters are holding or eating and driving to promote they are sitting on or at.

Set Designer Beth Kushnick has had a lot of inquiries as to how she has created the power abodes fans see on the show, both professional and personal. She even got a shout out from star Julianna Margulies when Margulies won her Emmy and thanked Kushnick for her interiors. And so on her blog, the designer tells where to get some of the furniture and accessories that contribute to the look of the show. For instance, if you like Alicia's vanity, you can get it from Glam Furniture and dress it up to match with the same drawer pulls you see on the show from Anthropologie. The console table behind the Florick's sofa comes from Pottery Barn, while the dining table comes from Crate and Barrel.

There is so much interest in the interior design that, to coincide with the new season, CBS Consumer Products has collaborated to create an original line of furniture and home d├ęcor items you can get for your own place. Inspired and now used on the sets, designs from Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams will focus on home furnishings, while Interlude Home will create accessories, accent furniture and lighting. So if you just have to have a stainless steel and glass desk like Diane's ($1430) or a wing chair just like Kalinda's ($1895), it's all available for the asking. Just supply your own legal and domestic disputes, and you'll be living the dream.

Should this prove successful, watch for other less traditional product tie-ins. If "Revolution" is a hit, watch for branded bows and arrows, while "Guys with Kids" will have baby carriers with room for a beer, and you can pull neighborhood watch in a "Homeland" hoodie. Sure, it sounds stupid. But look in the corner of your closet: isn't that a "Dancing with the Stars" gym bag you're using?


Marc Wollin of Bedford has to have a "Man from U.N.C.L.E" spy briefcase when he was 10. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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