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Charlize Theron was shown with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice crean in the 2011 movie Young Adult. (Phillip V. Caruso)
Charlize Theron was shown with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice crean in the 2011 movie Young Adult. (Phillip V. Caruso)

Out-of-place: How brands respond to unauthorized product placements Add to ...

The King of Beers says its crown has been tarnished.

For years, the caveat “please drink responsibly” has been a mainstay of beer and liquor ads – but an unauthorized product placement is going off message. The new film Flight stars Denzel Washington as an alcoholic pilot, who regularly slugs back bottles of Bud, among other drinks. Now Anheuser-Busch has asked Paramount Pictures Corp. to remove its Budweiser brand from the movie.

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“We would never condone the misuse of our products,” Budweiser vice-president Rob McCarthy wrote in a statement in November. William Grant & Sons, which distributes the Stoli vodka that also appears in the film, keeps a tight rein on how the product is shown in product placements. The company would not have agreed to a placement in Flight if it had been asked, a spokesperson said in a statement. However, the company has not approached Paramount or the film’s producers to discuss the matter. Paramount did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

This kind of unauthorized product placement is a reality for marketers. And a growing number are changing their approach, loosening their grip on placements in film and on TV – whether authorized or not. Social media has fundamentally changed things: From Twitter to Facebook and all corners of the Internet, conversations about brands are taking place on whether or not those brands decide to participate. The marketers that are most successful adapting to the social age are the ones that have realized they cannot maintain an iron grip on their image.

Stuart Schorr is one. Last spring, the vice-president of communications at Jaguar U.S. watched a marketing nightmare unfold on his TV as a major character on the lauded cable series Mad Men attempted suicide by asphyxiation in a Jag.

“I’m like ‘No. No, this can’t be happening,’ ” he said, recalling the broadcast. “As soon as the car didn’t start, immediately, I started shouting out loud, ‘The car’s not starting! The car’s not starting!’ I was happy.”

It was the worst optics yet in a multiple-episode arc that saw the brand dragged through some Mad mud. Just as with Flight and Budweiser, Mad Men’ s portrayal of Jaguar was not a product placement gone off the rails; the company was never involved. But Jaguar’s response says something about an evolving attitude. While industry watchers say there is no great increase in film and television producers using brands without consent – this has always happened to some extent – the response of brands faced with unauthorized product placement does seem to be changing.

“They didn’t ask. ... And we didn’t have a problem with that,” Mr. Schorr said. Jaguar executives made a conscious choice not to go after the show with legal challenges or attempts to negate the assaults on its image.

Mr. Schorr says that had this bit of drama played out 10 years ago – in the pre-social media age – the company’s response would have been very different.

“It’s a wild world of brand marketing,” Mr. Schorr said. “There’s a lot of different ways that your brand gets attention, and gets talked about. ... You have to know when a response is necessary. You have to have thick skin.”

Marketers are learning this on TV and in film more and more now. On the last season of 30 Rock, for example, labyrinthine furniture store IKEA was portrayed as a dystopian nightmare. When Tina Fey’s character has a problem, a maniacal sales representative responds, “Silence, prisoner – I mean, can I help you, valued customer?” When the stressful environment causes tension between the character and her boyfriend, the staffer looks on happily, stroking the wall in a sinister manner and whispering “IKEA.”

IKEA regularly does product placements – a twee scene in the movie 500 Days of Summer is one example – but this was not one of them. The 30 Rock crew built their own sets replicating a store. Since it did not use the IKEA logo, permission “was not requested or required,” said Janice Simonsen, a spokesperson for IKEA U.S. She seemed untroubled by the show’s hellish vision of the store.

“We don’t like to take ourselves too seriously,” she said.

Ben & Jerry’s was similarly relaxed when it fell into the hands of a self-absorbed, miserable character in the 2011 movie Young Adult. The film’s marketing materials featured a shot of Charlize Theron’s character holding a tub of the ice cream, looking wan and depressed.

Normally, a star of such wattage coming into contact with a brand is hugely valuable. But being gulped down in a fit of self-loathing by a women described by others as a “psychotic prom queen bitch” is not exactly the bouncy, laid-back image Ben & Jerry’s usually cultivates. The Unilever-owned ice cream maker didn’t mind.

“You probably wouldn’t get your product in any stories if you were waiting for the perfect [character],” said Sean Greenwood, the “grand poobah of public relations” for Ben & Jerry’s.

Not everyone agrees with that lighthearted approach.

“I wouldn’t say any exposure is good exposure,” said Jason Silver, president of Toronto-based FTWK Agency, which facilitates product placements in movies and TV for clients such as Toyota, Johnson & Johnson, and Mastercard. FTWK was instrumental in an episode of How I Met Your Mother that took place partly in a Tim Hortons. But he would never allow a client’s product to be handled by a villain or be present in negative scenes.

“When I’m watching a movie and I see a fake-label brand, I know something bad is about to happen,” he said. That’s because the absence of a real logo indicates the advertiser didn’t sign off on the action.

Film and television producers regularly seek out consent before using a product, because the production company’s insurance often requires it: Securing permission cuts down the likelihood of a company taking legal action against them, which the insurer would have to help pay to defend.

But Leonard Glickman, a partner in the Business Law Group at Cassels Brock, who specializes in intellectual property law in the entertainment industry, has noticed fewer lawsuits, mostly because they are difficult to win.

“Most of the cases – and there are more in the States than in Canada – have gone against the brand owners,” he said. “There’s more of a role for a communications response than a legal response.”

Take the 2004 Slip ‘N Slide case: Wham-O Inc., the maker of the toy waterslide, sued Paramount for unauthorized use of the product in the film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. In the scene, the main character jumps on to a dry Slip N’ Slide to painful effect. The court dismissed the case because of a “fair use” allowance in trademark law, and because the scene was exaggerated enough that the audience would understand it was not a product placement and the brand would not be harmed.

In an age where news travels quickly on social media, more brands are learning that there is a risk in taking a legal response. When Labatt Breweries of Canada found its product in the hands of suspected killer Luka Magnotta in a photo on the Montreal Gazette’s website, it made legal threats against the paper. Twitter and Facebook erupted with criticism of Labatt, and the brand ended up being misappropriated even further: People used the Twitter hashtag #newlabattcampaign to post fake advertising slogans for the beer, tied to the grisly murder.

Beyond legal concerns, there is a simpler reason producers will ask before showing a brand in a scene: to cut costs. Many companies are happy to provide free props in exchange for having their products featured.

But unauthorized use of products is still relatively common. In 2011, New Balance had an unfortunate star turn in Crazy Stupid Love, when suave leading man Ryan Gosling threw a pair off a balcony in a lesson about bad fashion choices.

“What can a company do?” said Steven Lewis, president of integrated marketing firm XMC Sports & Entertainment, and a former entertainment lawyer with Heenan Blaikie LLP. “It comes back to libel and slander. If something is said about a brand that is inaccurate, and there are damages that can be attributed to the statement, there’s a basis for legal proceedings … But there’s an ambiguity to it – if I were defending the production company, I would talk to that point. There’s ambiguity.”

Marketers such as Jaguar’s Mr. Schorr are now thinking twice about whether that’s entirely negative.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” he said. “We knew it wasn’t real ... and our responses using Twitter and Facebook really helped turn it into a positive.”

Even when authorized, product placement has to walk a fine line between helping the brand and looking authentic, said Anthony Hello, who runs the branded content department at MediaCom Canada. As viewers become even harder to reach, companies need product placement more than ever.

“People can tune out a lot of what is out there – or fast-forward through it ... Advertising for a long period of time has been an interruption, and people don’t like to be interrupted,” Mr. Hello said. “With social media and all the screens that are constantly going, the real forefront for brands is showing up on those screens as part of the content that consumers want.”

Sometimes that means taking a deep breath, building a thicker skin, and in the case of Jaguar, praying that the car won’t start.

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