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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.

“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.

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