From Carrie Bradshaw’s Closet: The Past, Present, and Future of Product Placement

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You open your closet to gaze upon your prized pair of cobalt blue satin designer shoes, but have you ever considered how those Manolo Blahniks from Carrie Bradshaw’s closet ended up in yours? You watch a popular show, film, or video and you see an item you love in the apartment of your favorite character maybe covertly in the background, a beautiful dress hanging in a closet, or overtly, a pair of Manolo Blahniks raved over by the main character, and the next thing you know, you are on the hunt for the newest must-have item.

According to the Branded Entertainment Network (BEN), the leading organization responsible for major product placement since the late 1970s, formal product placement originated in the early 1900s when “full length radio SOAP operas were sponsored by soap companies,” which moved into the 1950s wherein television shows on major networks were “wholly sponsored by brands.” Then, in the late 1970’s product placement organizations like BEN appeared in a way that formalized and organized the industry practice. Early sponsorships were overt and restricted to brands who had the spending power. As time has progressed, advances in technology and viewer sophistication (and ad annoyance) has necessitated that product placement become more ingenious and creative to influence purchases without necessarily interrupting viewing with an outright commercial. This is why product placements are also referred to as embedded marketing. Many assume that product placement is still a matter of a company’s budget, however this is not entirely true today. In the same way that fashion is now democratized and fragmented, so too is product placement. Embedded marketing is no longer a simple organized industry, it is one that is often shrouded in mystery and entangled in a web of relationships, cross promotions, and bartering. There are several modern product placement strategies for large and small brands outlined below to unravel this complicated web.

Organizational Liaisons

Organizational liaisons such as BEN and several PR companies can facilitate product placement for brands mostly through a more traditional buy-in strategy, but also take advantage of the organization’s network of relationships. So, again, the web is complicated in that even if a brand pays a PR company, the placements still may not be entirely monetary in nature. The brands with the largest budgets do not necessarily receive the best placements. Through AI (artificial intelligence), the playing field is much more even as BEN looks for the perfect product placement for each client based on 40 years of data. In a Forbes article by Lela London, she interviews BEN’s Chief of Integration and he states “our AI breaks this information down, thereby effectively analyzing every aspect of the content. Using this data, we create customized algorithms for each client that are guaranteed to predict the best content opportunities for generating results.” BEN represents clients from Chanel and L’Oreal to Old Navy and Gap; however, there is a niche for everyone including small start-ups. According to BEN’s Brand Partnerships Manager for a Vogue Business interview by Lucy Maguire, “Music videos are a key growth area for BEN. 46 per cent of consumers consider purchasing a brand after watching an integration in a music video, and 42 per cent of consumers report having made a purchase based on seeing a brand integration.” These statistics represent the power of brand integrations on consumer’s purchasing decisions as well as a growth area in a segment that is more democratized than film or TV. YouTube is a social medium that hosts a wide variety of product placement opportunities, as well as an extremely engaged audience.

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Individual Liaisons

Individual liaisons, especially stylists and costume designers, often choose to style characters in brands that result in organic placements based on the stylist’s and producers’ creative vision. Patricia Field, for example, is well known for her styling on “Sex and the City” and most recently, “Emily in Paris.” Chanel products were commonly touted by Lily Collins’ character throughout “Emily in Paris” (which gained some backlash due to inconsistency with the character’s wealth that we spoke about on “Fashion Reverie Talks” Episode 6.)

Patricia Field commented on her choice of Chanel in an interview with Giorgia Cantarini for L’OFFICIEL; She stated that she chose Chanel because “it is classic, it can be styled in many different ways, from classic to funky, e.g. with a pair of jeans like I did with Carrie [Bradshaw].” Field’s personal choice and appreciation for Chanel products plays a large factor in her styling decisions and represents a way in which brands achieve placements organically that still contribute to their bottom line. Similarly, Field’s choice to feature Manolo Blahniks throughout “Sex and the City” propelled the shoes to become a household name (and eventually Anna Wintour’s shoe of choice) which shows the major influence that stylists have on product placement and brand popularization.

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Many stylists have become very aware of this powerful autonomy and have in turn opted to meticulously choose which brands to support based upon their values and relationships. Elaine Welteroth, a host on “The Talk,” is surrounded by a majority Black team from fashion stylist Jason Rembert to makeup artist Alana Wright, and hair stylist Angela C. Stevens. Welteroth and her team often actively choose to support Black-owned brands that she often highlights in her Instagram stories from a Melody Ehsani necklace that showcases notable Black figures throughout history to a fringed Hanifa cardigan dress and scarf. Zerina Akers, Beyonce, and Chloe x Halle’s stylist, also understands the power of her platform as evidenced in her continuous support of small brands as well as Black-owned brands. She is the creator of the Black Owned Everything profile on Instagram and has worked alongside Welteroth in their American Express collaboration called “Built to Last,” a YouTube series that highlights Black-owned brands. This shows how many organic placements can also transform into partnerships wherein stylists keep coming back to certain brands. An example is Akers’ curating AREA’s crystal crochet poncho for Beyonce’s “Black is King” and more recently collaborating again for a custom AREA nameplate suit.

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Co-promotional Marketing

Many high profile designers have equally high profile muses. Hubert de Givenchy, for example, long capitalized on his personal relationship with Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn touted Givenchy gowns in films such as “Sabrina” and “Breakfast at Tiffanys” as well as on television at major award shows. Givenchy’s ties to American cultural muses have not yet been severed as Ricardo Tisci, former Givenchy creative director, maintains a relationship with Kim Kardashian. She wore his designs from her MET Gala debut to her highly publicized wedding with Kanye West. In many ways, both muses relationship with the brand represents a form of product placement that can be referred to as co-promotional marketing. While Tisci and Hubert de Givenchy propelled Hepburn and Kardashian toward “style icon” status, Hepburn and Kardashian contributed to Givenchy’s brand image. At the time of Hepburn, Givenchy was branded as a classic French fashion house; however, Kim Kardashian’s presence as a muse helped the brand reinvent itself. In an article for Glamour, Elana Fishman writes, “Tisci completely reinvented the classic French fashion house, making it a go-to for stylish streetwear as well as sophisticated red-carpet fare—and embraced the budding style icon that was Kim, even when other designers wouldn’t.”

This symbiotic exchange cannot be equated to a simple monetary exchange and represents a type of marketing that is rooted in networking and relationships.

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Small Brands as their own PR agent

Not every product placement is quite as lofty as those between designers and their muse. In the world of a fragmented fashion and fashion marketing industry, there are abundant possibilities for product placement, and liaisons are not always necessary. Accion Opportunity Fund lists several strategies that small brands can use: connecting to influencers via social media, cold calling, preparing press kits, and selling your story through social media content. Very often, micro influencers (those with less than 25k followers) are highly impactful when they represent brands, and also tend to be somewhat accessible. Small brands can send PR packages to these influencers in hopes that their products will be featured in the influencer’s content or they can pay them to feature their product.

Fashion (and Fashion Marketing!) is cyclical

In the same way that fashion is cyclical, so are the ways in which fashion is promoted. The future of product placement seems to be one in which brands are maintaining the placement as a major point of the production. As television had once been fully sponsored by a brand, many shows are now publicizing their relationship with a brand or service as a major point of value. The difference, however, is in the seamless integration that is not hidden yet adds to the viewing experience. For example, Amazon-sponsored “Next in Fashion” featured clickable Amazon products while viewing the show. This was not a covert relationship and signifies a possible future of product placement that relies on high tech and enhanced experiences. Likewise, TV show “Love Island” and online retailer I Saw it First partnered so the service styles the wardrobe of those on the show while the looks are then promoted on “Love Island’s” website.

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There exists significant blurring of the lines between monetary product placement, organic placement, and co-promotional placement which represents the current fashion business practices of  omni-channel selling and retailing. Just like the phrase “a sale is a sale is a sale,” “a placement is a placement is a placement,” and brands should embrace the glories of product placement.

—Tessa Swantek

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