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The Evolution of Product Placement

From its humble beginnings in the formative years of Hollywood, product placement has evolved into a proverbial 'billion dollar market.' Now with the Internet, this curious partnership between art and life, is once again on the rise.

Product placement in Hollywood productions has become an integral revenue stream for the studios, and indeed has had a profound effect on the end product. Would The Matrix have been the same without the venerable Nokia 8110 and Ray Ban sunglasses? Without the shameless FedEx plug from Cast Away, would the movie have created the same level of emotion?

The odd conjunction between commerical product and film was satirised in David Mamet's recent film State and Main, where a desperate producer plugs a million dollar hole in the production budget by allowing a computer products dotcom to 'place' their logo in a supposedly nineteenth century town.

Make no mistake -- this is big business. The two original drivers of the market were the Tobacco/Alcohol and Automotive industries. Indeed, the industry has developed to the extent that companies such as Studio Services Inc., now exist simply as an intermediary to place Porsche cars in the hands of feature film characters.

Things haven't always looked so rosy though. Product placement stagnated throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, with vendors adopting a simple and bland modus operandi: get the product or service in the film, with about as much contextual relevance as Truman holding up a box of soap powder. Today, product marketing strategies have taken on a greater degree of complexity and importance, to take full advantage of the new medium of the Internet.

Case in point is BMWFilms.com. BMW North America has completely transformed the value and importance of product placement, commissioning original work from world renowned Ang Lee, John Frankenheimer, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guy Ritchie. Their mission -- create a short film with a BMW prominently featured, although not necessarily integral to the plot. The results are available as a streaming media experience on the BMWFilms.com website.

The results are surprisingly tasteful and compelling. Although the lines of entertainment and advertising are inevitably blurred, the calibre of the directors more than compensates for the initial concerns. Poignantly, BMW uses the short film format and the Internet as tools to combat and circumvent the studio powerhouses. The Internet, holds particular importance, as it opens up an extremely low cost distribution platform (when compared to cinema, video and DVD) and allows the project to be delivered on a more modest budget.