The early history of promotional video: product placement

Promotional video has a long and rich history. From music videos to television advertisements and digital app promos, video is still one of the best tools in your arsenal when it comes to promoting your product, brand, or service. In this series of posts, we’ll be exploring the history of promotional video to demonstrate how dynamic and ultimately powerful video content can be.

Last time, we explored the relationship between the so-called 'Golden Age’ of consumerism and the wider history of promotional video. The 1950s gave birth to focus groups, classic advertising tropes focused on the family and the domestic sphere, and standalone television and cinema advertisements.

Before the concept of standalone promotional videos emerged, however, companies resorted to (well, arguably) more 'subtle’ methods. Product placement goes back as far as the 1920s, and it remains a prominent technique for filmmakers and advertisers alike.

If done right, a viewer won't sense there is product placement present, as it will fit subtly into the background (it has a 'simple presence on screen’) or the narrative (there is a plot interaction between a character and the product). If done badly - and it often is - a film or video can completely tank.

So where does product placement originate, and how is it used today?

The 1919 silent flick, The Garage, is a 25-minute short comedy featuring silent stars Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, and was one of the first films to feature (admittedly rudimentary) product placement. A number of burlesque scenes take place in the eponymous garage, and in the background of many shots in these scenes are advertisements on the wall for various oil and petrol companies. Petrol stations and shops remain popular natural settings for product placement, as the one-on-one cashier interaction gives directors a lot of opportunity to capture products surrounding the actors. The Garage pioneered using, well, garages for product placement, as well as the simple on-screen placement method. Limited by the silent picture format, product placement at this point in cinematic history had to be visual.

DBS car in Casino Royale

However, it wasn’t until E.T. (1982) came out in the early 1980s that product placement really took off. You may remember that in the film, E.T. is lured to his new home by following a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Launched 2 years prior, the product increased its sales by 65% within three months of the film’s release. It “quickly transformed into a method of reducing the cost of motion picture production while providing no-cost exposure for products,” explains Jay Newell, et. al.

This opened the product placement floodgates for Hollywood. Films as diverse as Forrest Gump (1994), Back To The Future (1985, 1989), Kill Bill (2003), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Pulp Fiction (1994)... in fact, nearly every major blockbuster since 1980 has featured product placement in one way or another.

These are often coupled with real life marketing campaigns as well. McDonald’s Happy Meals often feature toys from popular contemporary children’s films, and action heroes also tend to drive hot new sports cars which just happened to have been recently released (think of the Bond movies). Product placement is endemic to Hollywood cinema, and often crops up in some of the most innovative and groundbreaking films of the day. It gives directors the necessary funding to carry out their vision by unobtrusively promoting a product or service to audiences.

On the flip-side, comedy films have famously used product placement ironically. Check out this clip from Wayne's World below.

In the next post looking at product placement, we’ll examine how it has been used to great effect in modern ad campaigns and digital promotional videos on YouTube and Netflix.