|By Julie Wernau, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 22, 2011--This is a story about product placement in a documentary film deriding product placement, paid for entirely by product placement.
Though the film takes an all-out jab at this advertising trend, advertisers are on board. Morgan Spurlock's "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," opens Friday, and it's the real deal.
Among the companies that participated, Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels Corp. paid $700,000 to "sponsor" the film, knowing it was buying into a documentary devoted to how stupid and awkward product placement can be. (Nearly every interview in the movie takes place at a Sheetz gas station where every beverage other than POM Wonderful is blurred.)
"There will be a lot of questions from people like yourself about why we participated," said John Wallis, Hyatt's global head of marketing and brand strategy.
It may be a risky move by Hyatt, but worth it for the buzz, Wallis said. It's harder for advertisers to catch the public's attention, and not every online video goes viral. And consumers aren't watching TV the way they used to.
"There are more and more attempts to avoid the commercial break," said James Pokrywczynski, associate professor at the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University in Milwaukee. "We use the remote control to change channels, we DVR shows or edit out the commercials or fast-forward through them."
As a result, spending for product placements in TV, film, Internet and video games more than tripled between 2004 and 2009, from $1.1 billion to $3.6 billion, according to Stamford, Conn.-based media research firm PQ Media.
Some movies are saturated with product placement. The 2006 film "The Departed" hosted more than four dozen brands, according to a study in the May 2011 issue of Journal of Marketing.
"If you see how much attention people pay to a commercial, it's almost nothing. But with a movie or a show, you get more attention, you pay less money and you are involved with amazing artists," said Ricardo De La Blanca Brigati, CEO and founder of DLB Group, a self-described "global marketing services integrator."
But some say gauging whether product placement works is difficult.
"Inherently we know that it's good, but we don't have it all figured out yet," said Bob Liodice, CEO of the Association of National Advertisers Inc. "It isn't as scientific as we'd like it to be."
And placements can backfire. In 1991, a now-defunct Elmhurst brewery called Baderbrau scored a product placement in Bobcat Goldthwait's movie "Shakes the Clown." Unfortunately for the advertiser, the clowns spent a lot of time vomiting up the beer.
In today's marketplace, said Liodice, product placement has had to evolve beyond its roots.
"It's not just a Post cereal box sitting on a shelf in an episode of Seinfeld," Liodice said. "That's the old form of product placement."
The best placements, said Chet Fenster, managing partner with MEC Entertainment, which counts AT&T, Visa and Macy's among its clients, are so integrated into the entertainment experience that they are actually a part of it.
Some cases in point: AT&T's relationship with "American Idol." "Most people -- their first text message was a vote for 'American Idol,'" Fenster said. And on the A&E series "Hoarders," 1-800-GOT-JUNK? is like a character in the show -- one that plays a hero role.
Tania Venn, public relations director for the junk service, said the placement has been huge for the company. Between 2008 and 2010 (the period since "Hoarders" has aired), the percentage of people in the U.S. who had heard of the company moved from 29 percent to 39 percent, she said.
"It's a straight exchange of service for brand recognition," she said. "The show needed a service and we were the only ones who could provide it on a such a geographic scope, so we were lucky."
AT&T's product placement in the CW's "The Vampire Diaries" extends beyond the reach of the show, where vampires can be seen sporting AT&T phones picked to match their personalities. An online interactive hub also features behind-the-scenes photographs shot by cast members using their branded phones and a video game where characters use the phones.
Fenster calls it "brand integration," but he said every placement isn't for every brand.
In the case of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," he said, "it should be brands that have a certain attitude, challenger brands, less-established brands."
Any company that chooses to put its brand in the hands of a satirist, Fenster said, is sending the message that it can "take a wink at itself."
Hyatt's Wallis said, "We realized that there was a risk, especially with Morgan's work."
Hyatt was pleased with the result, and it was not the first placement for the brand; Park Hyatt Tokyo was the setting for the 2003 movie "Lost in Translation." For its part in Spurlock's film, the hotelier received a commercial within the movie as a bathrobe-clad Spurlock enjoys the comforts of a Hyatt hotel room. At a preview, that clip won audible laughs.
"We didn't cringe at all," Wallis said.
As part of the deal, Spurlock was required to stay in Hyatt hotels throughout the film. Hyatt got a mention for its Gold Passport program, a prominent spot on the lapel of a NASCAR-like suit Spurlock wears to promote the film and its logo on his shoulder in one version of the movie poster.
Hyatt is advertising the film -- and participation -- on room keycards.
"We think of Morgan Spurlock as a huge brand ambassador for every Hyatt around the world," Wallis said.
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