Product Displacements as Catalysts to Engagement

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Lately I’ve been noticing a trend of product displacements that are arguably more clever and memorable than even some of the most exhaustedly planned brand integration strategies.  During the product displacement process, any form of recognizable branding (i.e. logo or brand name) is removed or covered and essentially erased. This often occurs to avoid giving a brand free advertising or is requested by brands themselves if they sense that they will be presented negatively.In the “Reading is a Fundamental Case” episode of My Name is Earl, Earl Hickey uses a candy bar in his “magic trick” to create a ruckus among patients in a mental institution.  The prop candy was similar to that of a Kit Kat bar with its iconic orange packaging and typography, however the brand name was changed to read “Tit Tat.”  While the candy bar was not used for its intended purposes, it lingered on screen, was handled by a central character, served a pivotal plot purpose and had opportune close-ups, all of which make it an ideal placement for audiences to recall after viewing.  Scrubs has featured its own continuous product displacement over several seasons by setting many of its scenes in the fictional “Coffee Bucks,” an obvious reference to the Starbucks franchise.These product displacements are a far cry from the fictional worlds where “acme” branded products abound.  That said, they have a sort of quirky quality to them—they add verisimilitude and provide shows with an entertaining, parodic element.  Brand integrations are commonly seen as an effective way to reach elusive viewers in a DVR-filled world, but with product placements at an all-time high, (according to Nielsen Media Research, there were 204,919 product/brand occurrences during first half of 2008 alone) it would be naïve to think that audiences are not capable of tuning them out as easily as they fast-forward through commercials.It requires no stretch of the imagination to recognize “Tit Tat” and “Coffee Bucks” as stand-ins for real brands, but that recognition allows audiences to engage with product placements in a manner that is significantly more encompassing than simply spotting a branded product onscreen.  Referencing these product displacements to their real world counterparts requires audiences to actively draw upon their cultural capital and awareness, therefore they have more resonance than a strategically placed can of Coca-Cola or character mindlessly raving about his/her T-Mobile phone.  Ultimately, product displacements have the opportunity to flatter the intelligence of viewers, especially if they are parodic and satirical in nature.  I particularly like My Name is Earl and Scrubs examples because they provide an allure of audience members being in on a private joke that mocks Kit Kat and Starbucks.