Sometimes Product Placement Isn't Such a Good Idea

Hollywood Execs Relate Five of the Most Ill-Advised Requests From Marketers

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The deal: Marketers eager to get their brands into Hollywood's films, TV shows and music videos can be so star-struck that they don't fully consider whether product placement is a sound strategy to pursue.

The result: Some of the weirdest, most ill-advised, most impossible requests that product-placement executives have heard.

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It's not everyday that "Castaway" comes along with a starring role built in for Federal Express, AOL gets top billing in "You've Got Mail" or "Stranger Than Fiction" premieres with a Timex watch having as much screen time as lead actor Will Ferrell.

In fact, that kind of dream product placement is extremely rare, but it doesn't stop marketers of every stripe from trying to be part of the Hollywood machine. In fact it spurs them on, even though they don't understand what it takes to make a deal -- namely a mutually beneficial situation where the brand enhances the entertainment and vice versa.

We've assembled a top five on the outrageous scale, which range from the head-scratching to the downright dumb, compiled from interviews with veteran product-placement executives who asked to remain anonymous because they're still rolling their eyes at some of the lame ideas put forth by clients or potential clients.

In some cases, product placement never would've worked. In others, placement execs said they advised options such as sponsorships or branded entertainment instead. A sampling of the deals that never were:

So what if my product is invisible? A marketer that sells clear birth-control patches wanted its product embedded in TV shows and feature films. The main problem: You can't see it. Consumers would have no idea the product was even there because, as the brand promised, it's private and discreet. After having no luck getting "active use" of the product in entertainment projects, a placement agency finagled some standees and packaging into a few medical shows. Even less successful were pills that give you a suntan. The marketer wanted high-profile exposure in entertainment but had indistinguishable branding and no budget to pay for integrations of the new product. It has yet to hit the big screen after veteran placement execs turned down the business.

So what if my product is invisible? (Part two) An apparel conglomerate wanted to make a splash with its tagless T-shirts and asked its placement company to put the generic-looking shirts in various entertainment. Again: No one would have known they were branded, tagless T-shirts unless specifically informed. Where's a "Seinfeld" episode when you need one? This would've been a perfect Kramer-ism, but any such reference would've had to come from the writers and not from a business deal. The tagless shirts just didn't look distinctive enough to stand out in a show or movie's wardrobe, a common problem with clothing. The marketer eventually hired a PR firm for some stunts and sponsorships, which proved much more measurable than any placement.

It's a respectable joint, really. Several years ago, before celebrities made it temporarily chic to hang out at dive bars and strip clubs, an owner of a chain of "gentlemen's clubs" shopped Hollywood for a product-placement company. His requirement: The clubs had to be portrayed in a positive light. No murders, no mayhem, no leering liquored-up patrons doing unspeakable things. "He wanted the clubs to be positioned as glamorous," said a veteran product-placement exec who took the businessman's call. "No way the studios would go for that. It was still taboo at the time." Even now, as strip clubs have popped on racy cable fare such as "The Sopranos" and "Nip/Tuck," there is still usually a lot of unsavory things happening inside those, ahem, "gentlemen's" clubs. The activity fuels the plot, but it sure doesn't elevate the image.

This product is not a joke. The makers of an over-the-counter hair-growth treatment wanted to go beyond signage or product littered in the background in drugstore scenes. They wanted their product to be integrated into the storylines of TV shows and films. The catch: No making fun of bald guys. "They wanted their exact brand advertising message," said the placement exec who turned down the business. "They weren't open to any comedy." The same scene has played out a number of times with pharmaceutical companies that want their mood elevators and other drugs woven into entertainment sans punch lines. The advice from placement-industry mavens: If you can't control the message -- and you usually can't -- it could be much better to keep your brand out than to try to get it in.

Thank you for smoking. A company that markets rolling papers wanted its products on the sets of convenience stores and groceries. Product-placement execs immediately smelled a rat. They knew that Hollywood-studio prop masters, set dressers and placement execs would never include rolling papers in their scenes, even though the product could legitimately be sold for rolling cigarettes. There was just too much stigma and, perhaps, too few stoner movies.

Dishonorable mentions: We couldn't decide on one, so we've picked a couple. There's the feminine-hygiene marketer that wanted to be embedded in a vampire-themed TV show and create a blood-centric promotion (yeah, ick!) and the lingerie company that wanted its product back after the film shoot and asked for still photos of the A-list celebrity in the frilly undies. In both cases, the product-placement agencies showed the marketers the error of their ways -- ever so diplomatically, of course.
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