Product Placement that Works (No, Really)
We’ve all seen blatant product placement at one time or another. It’s often unnatural, and can pull you out of whatever story you were immersed in. But what about when the product is an organic part of the story? When it’s a natural fit with the characters and plot? I don’t know about you, but I’m 100% fine with that, as long as the creator is up front about it. However, I do think it needs certain circumstances (and skills) in order to work well.
In the past year Wizards of the Coast—publisher of games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: The Gathering—has entered into a couple of product placement deals that I think have been quite successful. Scott Kurtz, author of the webcomic PvP, and LoadingReadyRun, a group that produces comedic and geeky videos, both agreed to integrate Wizards’ products directly into the content they produce. The result, in my opinion, was advertising that rarely felt like advertising, and managed to both entertain and to generate interest in the products.
But as I said, you need to meet certain conditions in order to succeed with this type of advertising. In reading the webcomic, watching the videos, and sifting through fans’ reactions to the product placement, I’ve come up with a few elements I think are necessary to make this kind of arrangement work:
1. A good fit between product, audience, and content.
If you’re writing a comic strip about video games, a sponsorship deal with, say,
My Little Pony* a gardening store probably isn’t the best idea. Gardening will be harder to fit naturally into the story, and no matter how seamlessly you do it, your readers probably aren’t going to care. But if your comic is about gamers, your fans are gamers, and you make a deal with a gaming company, then not only is it a good fit, but it’s something your fans may actually get excited about.
*There’s a surprising amount of overlap in audience between gamers and fans of My Little Pony. Seriously. the image below took about two seconds to find. I love this world.
2. A sponsor that’s open to creative forms of advertising.
If a company is too insistent on something very formulaic or blatant, it limits the creator’s, well, creativity. Then you get stiff dialogue explaining the virtues of a product, or simple shots of the product front and centre.
3. A good relationship with your fanbase.
This is more important than you may think. When Kurtz made his deal with Wizards, a lot of people complained…but many of those discussions dissolved into reasons why Kurtz was a jerk and why they stopped reading the comic. Because they didn’t like him, they perceived this move as “selling out” and weren’t really willing to give the idea a chance. But the people who actually enjoyed his work seemed more excited, or at worst, ambivalent.
In contrast, LoadingReadyRun (LRR) got back into Magic a few years ago and brought fans into the game just through their enthusiasm for the product, long before they made any deal with Wizards. So when they did make that deal, fans knew it was because they really loved the products they were advertising—when LRR says they think something is awesome, their fans believe them. Bottom line: if your fans respect and trust you, then they trust you to advertise something you actually care about. And they’ll be more likely to try out that product, because they also trust your judgment.
4. Openness about the sponsorship.
People don’t like being tricked, and it can lead to a lack of trust between creator and audience if the creator isn’t honest about it. This isn’t the same as putting up a banner ad on your site; people should know that the content they’re reading has been paid for by a sponsor and isn’t just the creator’s opinion (even if it’s in line with the creator’s interests).
Given all this, plus really good writing, I think product placement can work very well. If the result is entertaining, the quality doesn’t suffer, and the creator actually supports the product, then I’m all for it. Personally, if an individual or group makes something that I love, I want them to be successful. I want them to make money from what they do, so that they can do more! I’ll put up with banner ads and video ads; I’ll buy their merchandise if I can afford it; I’ll tell all my friends about them. And if they can do product placement that meshes well with their current work, then hell yes I will support them in that. I wouldn’t want to see every single video or comic strip involve product placement, but let me tell you: I can’t wait for the next time LRR teams up with Wizards. It’ll be Magic.
You can find the start of PvP’s Magic storyline here, and Scott Kurtz’s reasons for partnering with Wizards here.
LoadingReadyRun produced four stand-alone videos incorporating Dungeons and Dragons products, and a four-part mini-series for Magic: The Gathering called Friday Nights. I highly recommend trying a few, regardless of whether you’re interested in the products.