Alternative Media: Drugs on Film

Will product placement be the next avenue for brand builders?
Sep 01, 2004
By Pharmaceutical Executive

In a British underground secret service lair, the resourceful Q reluctantly hands 007 a bottle of Cialis and asks him not to disappear for the weekend.


Since E.T. 20 years ago, product placement has become a fairly essential part of making movies, TV shows, video games, and music because it makes those endeavors financially feasible. simon williams
In a South African jungle, Arnold Schwarzenegger chomps a cigar after decimating a series of small villages and announces to the camera: "I'll be back.I need to take my Lipitor."

In the crowded halls of high schools in teen movies everywhere, the popular football player informs his pimply faced lab partner about Accutane.

Of course, none of that really happened. Pretty Woman actress Julia Roberts never took Valtrex. No physician ever prescribed Xenical to Fat Albert. And in Leaving Las Vegas, the alcoholic character, Ben Sanderson, opted for suicide rather than Campral.

But it could happen. After all, product placement has already become the standard operating procedure for consumer mega brands such as Nike and Apple. And with films such as the recently released Garden State, which mentions name-brand antidepressants—Paxil (paroxetine) and Zoloft (sertraline), among others—perhaps it's time that pharma gets into the biz.

From his office in the Empire State Building, Simon Williams, president and CEO of the Sterling Group, explains that the industry has already started to explore this tactic as a way to build brand awareness. Here, Williams discusses why product placement may make sense for industry's better-known brands and advises interested marketers to venture into this territory slowly and eloquently—or risk turning off consumers completely.

When was product placement born? Williams: It goes back about 20 years,to when the manufacturers of Reese's candy paid for its product to be in the movie E.T. Since then, product placement has become an essential part of movies, TV shows, video games, and music because it makes those endeavors financially feasible.


Lights. Camera. Action!
It's also a more natural reflection of life because brands are everywhere. It was odd when actors clumsily held onto a coke can, but you never saw the label.

Why is product placement growing so rapidly? It is yet another manifestation of media fragmentation. It used to be easy to build a brand. There was a huge obedience factor in consumers. Some years ago, we all sat and watched the 30-second commercial and went out to buy the product. But today's consumers are probably the smartest generation of consumers ever to have walked the planet. They have extraordinary filters, they don't like being marketed to, and they don't sit and watch advertisements at the same rate their parents did. Brand owners have had to become much more agile in finding vehicles to connect their products to consumers.

Does industry use product placement? This is another example where the pharmaceutical industry will be followers, not leaders. That's because product placement is partly about popular culture—companies like Apple and Sony make the context relevant to audiences. There have been some examples of drug product placement, such as Zoloft in the Sixth Sense. But as more drugs undergo Rx-to-OTC switches, and drugs become a bigger part of our lifestyle and our everyday world, we should see prescription drug placements show up more in entertainment.

Why are Rx-to-OTC products particularly ripe for product placement? On the assumption that the placement is in sync with the OTC launch, then it can create a disproportionate buzz. Taking a product over the counter requires ultra-heavy marketing efforts because Rx-to-OTC switches are generally unknown to consumers. Product placement is one of the vehicles that can be used to launch the brand into the cultural mainstream very rapidly.

What lessons have already been learned about product placement?

It must fit the context of the movie and flow within the script. It has to be used in a subtle way—if product placement is obvious, consumers will turn off immediately.

For example, it made sense to use the Apple Mac in Sex in the City because the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker was a columnist. That spot became almost an immeasurable awareness builder for Apple. But it caused some controversy because the placement was repetitive and the shots were prolonged. I'm sure that happened with executives in negotiation saying, "I want more mentions and more exposure," and the scriptwriters trying to balance that need without making the show a 30-minute ad. But product mentions and visual shots should only be an instant because the audience has zero tolerance for obvious marketing.

What questions should brand managers ask to decide if product placement is right for their brand? The first question should be, "Is my product mainstream enough?" If people haven't heard of the name, they are just going to say, "What the hell is that?"

Marketers should also ask if the drug's target market will watch the movie. Obviously, there is no purpose in mentioning Lipitor if high-cholesterol sufferers aren't watching. Other questions are, "What are the likely payoffs?" "Why should I spend a dollar here versus a more traditional way of talking to consumers?" and "How would this product placement impact the image of my brand?"

Do you think more pharma companies will use product placement? Every industry will try it because their ad agencies, who are involved in this, will make recommendations to tie up with Hollywood to better promote their products. This is a case of action begets more action. The more pharmaceuticals are seen in product placement, the more other pharma products will want to be seen in the same environment.

I would never expect the pharma industry to be an early adopter of this practice, but I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes a disproportionately important avenue for building brand awareness for drugs within the next five years—because it gets people when they are engaged. Companies like Pfizer, which run such huge brands and have some of the smartest marketers in the country, are looking at how to apply product placement. I suspect that the rest of the industry will also not want to miss out on any genuine established marketing communication vehicle.

Are there risks for the industry to using this approach?

Product placement will feel a little on the risky side for drug companies, who are quite conservative and have an inherent seriousness and ethical nature. The tonality of how companies position drug brands within entertainment is potentially a conflict because it can be seen as trivializing a drug and the people who take it who may have a serious illness.

But there are drugs that are well proven and whose names have become part of our everyday lexicon, such as Prozac (fluoxetine). For those pharmaceuticals, product placement is much more than brand awareness. It provides brand trust, brand in context, and usage occasion.

What will spur adoption of this practice by the pharma industry? There's not much market research being done on product placement yet. The arena needs more quantitative study into the impact of such placements by a neutral party.

How does the use of product placement reflect broader trends in advertising? There is a subtlety of language and communication complexity that simply did not exist 10 or 20 years ago.

The days of mass marketing are truly over, and the days of "me" marketing have arrived. You can't talk down to consumers, you can't talk at consumers—you have to be in sync with their life and act as if you know them. That gives brand owners huge challenges as to how to appeal to the different races, genders, and religious groups.