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Mind Your Business: Product Placement

Mark Simon discusses a growing trend in animation.

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Animation is an art form, but the animation industry is a business of production. Production needs money. Placing products into productions raises funds.

It's a simple line of logic:

  Commercial product placement interruption: This article is brought to you by SellYourTvConceptNow.com.

When I first started researching this article, I received comments on the subject of product placement in animation from producers, executives, directors and fans. The comments ranged from producer Terry Thoren (Rugrats), "Ain't done it. Ain't gonna do it," to studio executive Jeff Young at Starz Animation, "Our studio is a believer in product integration as long as it is subtle and fits naturally into the film."

Most fans responded with disgust like Mark Smith who said, "The concept truly disrespects the art form." But others, like Katherine Walsh, who said, "Used tastefully and infrequently, it could be a pleasant encounter in an animated film or on TV."

Who's right? Everyone is right. There is no singular correct answer, but there are some wrong ones.

There is a blog on Toonzone.net with a forum discussing product placement in cartoons. I got some good information there, but I also learned that a lot of people misunderstand the meaning of product placement. Plus, like on most internet blogs, I learned some new, disgusting sexual acts.

Volkswagon shown in Curious George. Courtesy of Universal and Imagine Ent.

First, let's discuss what product placement is and how it differs from product integration.

Product placement is where a brand name product is placed into a production where the viewer can see it. Think Coke on every possible surface on American Idol.

Product integration is where the branded product becomes part of the story. A good example is in the movie What Women Want when ad executive Mel Gibson develops an ad campaign for Pepsi, right before he leaves the set, sets his gardener on fire and beats the women in his life.

Another great example of product integration is the hilarious use of Starbucks in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.

Walmart integrated in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

An animated character appearing with products in commercials is not product placement. That's the characters being licensed to promote a product in a commercial.

I should also briefly mention parody of products too: When the name of a product is changed slightly for humor's-sake (like Pizza Slut instead of Pizza Hut, that's a parody. Parody products are not product placement. Of course, in a true parody, you don't even need to change the name, as parody is protected by our first amendment of free speech.

At first, I couldn't think of many examples of products shown in animation and neither could most of the people I interviewed. But, the more I looked, the more I found.

The example most people remembered was Universal's animated feature Curious George. There were three products/companies with product placement in the film; Volkswagen, Dole Bananas and the U.S. Postal Service.

While a few people I spoke with were bothered by the advertising in the movie, it didn't bother me. The products were handled well and they made sense in context.

The truck the man in the yellow hat drove was designed to fit the look of the movie and was based on a Volkswagen Touareg concept vehicle. The lead character is a monkey, so having bananas with stickers on them that say Dole fit perfectly. That kind of promotion only helps a movie. Without ticket buyers, we don't have jobs.

Oscar-winning Logorama is the champ in satirizing product placement. © 2009 H5.

Another reminder that the products were well integrated into Curous George occurred when I spoke with the film's director, Matt O'Callaghan, and he could only remember the Volkswagen placement.

Disney's 1988 animated feature Oliver and Company had a number of advertised products like Coca-Cola, USA Today, Sony and Ryder Truck Rental.

Threshold's never-released animation Foodfight! tried taking product placement to an extreme. The movie takes place in a supermarket at night and when all the people are gone the aisles turn into virtual city streets. The products and product icons come to life and all the products and icons are real.

Of course, the record of product placement goes to the 2010 Oscar animated shorts winner Logorama. It featured more than 3,000 logos and icons, although they were non-official, so it wasn't really product placement, just products used.

Even Pixar showed Apple products in its hit feature WALL•E (although, aren't they all hits?): the eponymous robot watches Hello, Dolly! on an iPod. The Mac OS X Leopard wallpaper was seen in the background. Even when WALL•E finishes recharging his batteries, he makes the Mac welcome chime.

WALL•E was a walking ad for Apple. Courtesy of Disney.

While not exactly product placement, the floating robot Eve was partially designed by an Apple designer. Richard Siklos at Fortune Magazine wrote that WALL•E director Andrew Stanton called Steve Jobs, who then sent Apple design guru Johnny Ive to Pixar to consult on the design. No wonder the character is as sleek as an iPod.

According to one fan, the hit anime movie Cowboy Bebop featured Coca-Cola.

In Looney Tunes: Back in Action, co-starring live-action star Brendan Fraser, there is a humorous bit of product integration where the actors see a Walmart in the desert and Bugs Bunny asks, "Is that a mirage or just product placement?" Daffy Duck responds, "Hey, who cares, with shopping convenience and such low prices." Bugs continues, "It sure was nice of Walmart to give us these complimentary Walmart fountain drinks for mentioning Walmart so much." The producers made the humor of the product integration part of the humor of the movie, thus it fit into the movie rather than pulling the viewer out of the magic of the moment.

One of my favorite movies, The Iron Giant, featured what may look to be product placement when Hogarth is seen reading a MAD Magazine. However, according to the film's producer, Max Howard, that wasn't the case. "That was done for creative and not product placement reasons, although what a perfect one it could have been."

Max continues, "Product placement in animation is pretty rare, partly because the imaginary worlds we create, restrict the opportunity to do so. Also, the films can be timeless and linking them to a time period thru a product placement could undermine the longevity of the film. In short, I think we should be looking to product placement opportunities but realize that it is a more difficult marriage than for our live-action friends."

Brand in Entertainment CEO, Rolfe Auerbach, agreed that certain types of projects are harder to place products. "Any period piece that takes place before 1800 is hard to sell, since the products would look so different now. We also don't deal with anything sexual or which includes violence against women."

The Mulan producers resisted branding the toothpaste. Courtesy of Disney.

The directors of Disney's wonderful animated feature Mulan had to deal with the possibility of placing a modern-day product into a period piece.

I recently spoke with Tony Bancroft, Mulan co-director, about product placement. "It came up just once for me. In Mulan, we had a scene in the movie where Mulan is bathing naked in the lake when a bunch of her other troops strip down and jump in too.

"She doesn't know what to do so she looks to her guardian Mushu for help. So he bites the butt of one of the naked guys to distract them and after they all leave screaming, he exits the pond brushing his teeth in disgust.

"Now admittedly, it was highly debated whether to even have a scene in a movie about ancient China with a character brushing his teeth with toothpaste, but we justified it by the fact that a talking magical dragon doesn't exist either -- and heck, we thought it was funny!

"After we decided to keep the gag in the film, the very next thing that happened was my directing partner, Barry Cook, and I were called into a meeting with the President of Animation, Peter Schneider, who said, 'We have screened the film for some of our licensing and marketing people and they see an opportunity to have a product tie-in with the toothpaste that Mushu uses to brush his teeth. We don't have to put any packaging in the scene but if we make the toothpaste tri-color striped like Aqu-Fresh they would put big money into the marketing.'

Shorties Watchin' Shorties promoted a number of products. Courtesy of Comedy Central.

"Barry and I were very surprised because we had never even heard of Disney doing product placement in their animated features except for maybe Oliver & Company. Most of the time there is never much opportunity.

"Then Peter added something, which I will thank him for the rest of my life. He said, 'But guys, it's your movie and if you don't think it will help the scene then you don't have to do it. It's up to you.'

"Barry and I thought it over and just felt that to make it generic white toothpaste made it about Mushu and the moment, but doing it tri-colored could pull the audience out of the moment. So we told Peter 'No', and it never happened."

Some of these examples resulted in payments to the movie and series, others didn't. Some placements were paid for with marketing, such as when Dole delivered 100 million Dole bananas with Curious George stickers on them.

There are also a number of product placement examples in TV production.

Father of the Pride, the DreamWorks animated series for NBC, featured a known casino and Sprite.

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Comedy Central's short-lived animation series from 2004, Shorties Watchin' Shorties, featured a number of products such as Dominoes, Activision videogames and Red Bull. Most of the products did not pay a placement fee, but rather agreed to buy a certain amount of commercials spread across the network.

Sneaker company Sketchers is in production on a series with Moonscoop to produce Zevo-3, loosely based on their line of shoes.

Anime series Code Geass featured Pizza Hut product placements.

Fox's American Dad had a scene which took place in a Burger King.

Anime series Cowboy Bebop featured Salem cigarettes (ewww!).

Joe Murray, creator of Rocko's Modern Life, was producing at Cartoon Network when the network proposed having all their series do an episode that could link up back-to-back and make one story. "It was going to be sponsored by Kelloggs," Murrays said." And then they dropped out, and another sponsor came in. But it became so ridiculous and we all fought it so much, the network dropped it."

One of the most famous recent product placement/integration disasters (for one of the promoters) was last years' Family Guy variety show. Originally Microsoft was supposed to sponsor the entire show. Evidently no one from Microsoft has ever seen the show because they pulled out when they saw the incest and holocaust jokes during a rehearsal. The movie Sherlock Holmes stepped in to replace Microsoft as the sponsor.

There may also be legal reasons behind a product placement decision.

I asked executive Birk Rawling at Nickelodeon about any potential product placement at the network. He replied, "Due to federal regulations/laws, we avoid paid product placement in all of our children's programming."

That was also the case when I was designing live-action shows at Nickelodeon.

There is another issue to keep in mind if you are producing an animated show for kids. In October of 2009, Ofcom in the UK, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, warned all children's TV producers that as of December 2009, no product placement will be allowed in any programs aimed at kids under 16, including those programs imported from the US.

If you have a project which you think might be able to include product placement or integration, your first step will be to approach a specialist company. They will analyze your script and then discussions start with producers to see what products might fit.

Some placement/integration companies are: Brand in Entertainment – www.brand-inentertainment.com Creative Entertainment Services – www.acreativegroup.com Eclipse Worldwide – www.eclipse-worldwide.com Hollywood Branded – www.hollywoodbranded.com Hollywood Product Placement – www.hollywoodproductplacement.com

With the prevalence of reality programming these days and how often they make use of real products and real commerce outlets, we're much more used to seeing name brands without it being distracting.

It comes down to this: If you have a joke about a product and you have a choice of making up a fake product or using a real product while adding to your budget, as long as it doesn't hurt the movie, use the product placement (in limited portions).

Mark Simon (have a Coke and a smile) is an award-winning animation director/producer. His animation is online at www.FunnyToons.tv. He is also the co-founder of www.SellYourTvConceptNow.com. He has pitched and landed over 25 deals for his own projects. He is currently turning the hit comic strips B.C. and Wizard of Id into animated properties (both of which take place before 1800, so …)

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