Product placement gets the red carpet treatment

A scene from the 2011 action film "Fast Five" features a prominently placed Apple computer. Apple won website Brandchannel's award for Overall Product Placement at the Product Placement Awards.

Kai Ryssdal: Now that the Grammys are done, awards season moves from music to movies. The Oscars are at the end of the month.

And today, the annual Product Placement Awards from the good people at Brandchannel.com. Imagine, if you can, a movie without a recognizable car model or a computer whose make you can't name.

Not gonna happen, right? Abe Sauer is in charge of the awards for Brandchannel. Welcome to the program.

Abe Sauer: Good to be here.

Ryssdal: All right, so before we get to the big winners, tell me how you guys figure out who the winners are?

Sauer: For the last decade we've been watching each one of the No. 1 films at the box office each weekend and tracking all of the identifiable brands and product placements in each one of those films and then adding to a searchable database by brand, film, year, and everything.

Ryssdal: Do you actually have to like go to the movie theater and sit there with a pad and a pencil?

Sauer: Absolutely. It's sometimes awkward because people wonder what you're writing about and you're by yourself. This last week I went and saw "The Vow" by myself with a notebook. That's kind of creepy.

Ryssdal: It's a fun date, man. All right, so who are the winners? Roll it out for us.

Sauer: The No. 1 product that appeared in more of the U.S. top films last year than any other was Apple.

Ryssdal: Shocking. Shocking.

Sauer: Yeah, Apple appeared in almost twice as many No. 1 films as did the nearest brand.

Ryssdal: Now let me ask you this: Other than tapping into the, 'Oh my gosh, everybody loves Apple' zeitgeist, why do producers want Apple or Ford or whatever it is in their movie?

Sauer: Well there's a number of reasons. First, Apple has a very good... They don't pay for product placement, but they have a very good system.

Ryssdal: Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. I thought the whole thing about product placement was that companies paid movie producers to use their stuff?

Sauer: I think that's what everybody thinks. But the vast majority of product placement, actually, there's no money changing hands really I would say. Apple has a good infrastructure for getting products to sets so that people can use it for free, so I guess Apple does pay in the sense that they supply free product. But the truth is a lot of products are used as shorthand in development for characters on-screen in ways that audiences don't always see. When you put a man in a 911 Porsche in a movie, it usually means he's a jerk.

Ryssdal: Remind me never to buy a 911.

Sauer: Look at "Bridesmaids." In "Bridesmaids" this last year, he drove a Porsche and he was a jerk. And usually you will find that. Screenwriters and filmmakers use product as short-hand for character development very often.

Ryssdal: Is there a way to figure out, then, how much this is worth to Apple or whoever else it is?

Sauer: Valuation is still a hard thing to do in the industry, and there are different systems to do it. We worked this year for the first time with a group called Front Row Marketing and they came up with some big numbers. "Mission Impossible" for example, the value of the Apple product placement in that film was over $23 million.

Ryssdal: Wow.

Sauer: And it spent more than five minutes on the screen all put together throughout the film.

Ryssdal: And of course, it's not like Apple needs another $23 million.

Sauer: Well, I mean that's the thing. Here they're getting free placement and they don't have to advertise. That's $23 million of, kind of, advertising value that they get.

Ryssdal: Abe Sauer, he writes the Product Placement Awards for the website Brandchannel.com. Abe, thanks a lot.

Sauer: Thank you very much.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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