The Decline and Fall of Product Placement

July 11, 2013

By Jonah Sachs via HBR

For more than a century, the motion picture has reigned supreme as the world’s ultimate storytelling tool. The sheer size of the “big screen,” Hollywood’s confidence that their product can hold audience attention for upwards of three hours, and budgets that run into the hundreds of millions, all proclaim the dominance of their art form. And the artists who tell stories? Filmmakers are gods, TV producers are wannabes, and ad execs are scum (a recent Ad Age survey put the advertising profession below politicians on the respectability scale).

So it’s no wonder that over the decades, advertisers have so eagerly turned to the tool of product placement when looking to associate their brands with a great story. Embedding a product or service into a story masterpiece has seemed like a natural win — especially when the assumption is that brand stories will never be able to compete with the real storytellers in Hollywood.

Of course, these assumptions are becoming obsolete faster than most audiences or advertisers realize. And the future of storytelling will turn this power dynamic on its head. Technology is constantly opening up opportunities for stories surrounding brand experiences to be every bit as compelling — and far more interactive and authentic — than the next Hollywood blockbuster. Instead of product placement — where the advertiser pays to attach a product to someone else’s superior story — I believe we are entering the era of story placement — in which intense creativity will be applied to every step of the customer experience to turn the brand itself into a compelling and ever unfolding story.

How will this work? As I imagine the creative agency of 2020, based on conversations with numerous executives and futurists, I see three distinct changes that might drive the emerging practice of story placement.

Brands will build “story-worlds,” not canned, thirty-second spots designed for broadcast. Brands that hope to create engagement, exploration, and sharing will need to create cross-platform content that begins as a video story, continues in interactive experiences, and perhaps reaches climax in an actual real-world experience. This requires characters that live and breathe (rather than pop up for thirty seconds and die), plots to unfold over time, and a place in the world for audiences to insert themselves. Jeff Gomez, of Starlight Runner Entertainment, is a trailblazer in creating worlds for companies like Coca Cola and Mattel. His seven-figure engagements have paid big dividends for clients because they have led to campaigns in which audiences intuit the magic behind the product’s story and clamor to get involved. His campaigns give brands the tools they need to expand their story into whichever direction it takes off.

Storytelling will be turned to the crowd (very carefully). There’s been so much talk of crowdsourced storytelling these days — and so little actual success. That’s because just asking your audience to tell your story for you doesn’t work. Brand managers need to set up their brand’s story world (see above) and then turn the storytelling itself (or part of it at least) to the crowd. They need to define the stories the crowds will tell. Doritos has been notably successful at this with its Superbowl advertising. They’ve been able to effectively set the rules for the Doritos world and consistently made good on their promise to honor their community’s creative output on the world’s largest stage. The results — many of the most beloved Superbowl spots of the last few years and massive community engagement and evangelism. Brand managers need to learn how to manage the process rather than the output.

Audiences will demand authenticity. Storytelling of the future will put two competing pressures on advertisers. On the one hand, advertisers will need to become far better at dealing in fiction. The kinds of experiences that will rise to rival Hollywood blockbusters will necessarily be infused with magic, symbolism, and drama. Nothing else will delight increasingly jaded audiences. Our worlds must look as colorful to audiences as Oz looked to Dorothy when compared to Kansas. But…nobody wants to live in Oz because Oz was ruled by a charlatan. It was a magical place, but a highly inauthentic one. It took Dorothy exposing this to become the hero of her own story. And that brings in the contradictory second pressure: to be deeply authentic even as we create fictional worlds.

So while there will be a premium placed on creativity and symbolism, audiences will demand that the lines between reality and fantasy not be blurred. Associating a car, for instance, with a world of adventure, joy, and mystery will offer an exciting immersion. Promising that it will deliver you happiness despite poor safety ratings or environmental performance will send audiences running to the story-worlds of competitors. Living up to the wonderful worlds brands create — and to higher audience expectations — may be a powerful force for higher levels of corporate and non-profit social responsibility.

These trends are fast approaching. In many ways, they’re already here. But will these story-placement tools raise brand storytelling to the level of the Hollywood masters? I predict within five years the first brands will definitively answer yes. The question is: Who will get there first?

Image: Bespoke