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Product Placement in Movies: Toy Stories turn Playthings into Stars

Updated on November 23, 2014
heidithorne profile image

Heidi Thorne is a promotional products expert and author of SWAG: How to Choose and Use Promotional Products for Marketing Your Business.

Product placement in movies and television shows is nothing new. It's been done for decades! (See how the long-standing James Bond movie franchise uses the technique in What is Celebrity Advertising?)

But with entries such as The LEGO® Movie and the Transformers franchise, product placement is taken to a whole new level with the products, or their likenesses, being actors and characters themselves in the movies. This can be a marketing and branding coup for the manufacturers, turning these cinematic works into extended commercials. But, more importantly, these movies help create and grow the stories the brand represents.

Here are some examples of this product placement marketing strategy and how it works (or doesn't!) to build a brand name and brand loyalty.

"Toy Story is a perfect example, right?"

Wrong! Ironically, in a discussion of toys becoming stars of motion pictures, the super successful Toy Story franchise from Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures does not qualify. The movie followed the path of many other film franchises, including Star Wars, in which the movie came first and toys based on the film's characters came afterwards or in conjunction with the movie launch.

The brands discussed here created toy characters that later became stars in film, building or rejuvenating the products, the brands and the stories they represent.

The LEGO Movie Builds a Brand... and Togetherness

The LEGO® Movie is a prime example of how this product placement technique can be done effectively. The LEGO toys and accessories were animated as the movie's characters and the popular building brick system was shown magically creating buildings and scenes throughout. Then at the end (spoiler alert!) the family owning the LEGO toy kingdom was featured having a moment enjoying building together.

LEGO's marketing message—their story—which encourages families to "build together" is evident not only in the movie, but throughout their other broadcast advertising.

Why It Works or Doesn't: The movie, advertising and core message are in alignment. The starring product placement in the movie will be attractive to its brand loyal audience. It may even create some new fans! The only commentary against it was that the humor in the film was sometimes very subtle, with many pop culture references from decades past, that may only be appreciated by adults. But adults are paying for the kids to see the show. So why not make it appeal to both?

Barbie Movies Keep Her Brand Alive

Mattel's Barbie™ doll line has been popular for over half a century. As times and attitudes have changed, so has Barbie. Starting out as primarily a fashion doll, Barbie has evolved into a variety of multicultural and career versions. But the core message is one of "girl power," with Barbie having all kinds of adventures, careers and friends, in addition to a Dreamhouse closet full gorgeous fashions.

There have been several Barbie movies, most being direct-to-DVD titles. The movies feature animated Barbie characters having magical or fairy tale adventures which would appeal to younger audiences.

Why It Works or Doesn't: These movies definitely bolster the Barbie brand with the core audience of little girls who are likely to be watching them on a DVD player at home (probably over and over and over...). The doll characters featured in the movie may also have a special limited edition doll available in retail. So the movies can help create demand for the dolls and the dolls can help create demand for the movies... a grand circle of marketing.

G.I. Joe Marches into Live Action

Hasbro's G.I. Joe™ action figures, which are modeled to represent members of the U.S. military, have been popular since they were introduced in 1964, with several versions over the decades. It has been the inspiration for a cartoon series and, in the 21st century, a movie franchise which brought it to the widescreen.

Whereas the LEGO and Barbie movies featured animations of the toy characters, the G.I. Joe film franchise featured live action characters based on the toy concept. While the actors chosen for the roles have some resemblance to their toy counterparts, it is a stretch to match every one character for character. As well, the 2009 movie had a PG-13 rating due to action violence.

Why It Works or Doesn't: The movie does appeal to older audiences who may have grown up playing with the G.I. Joe figures. They could relive their childhood playtime action in a whole new way, without reverting to being a kid again.

There are action figure toys based on the movie characters, some recommended for children as young as ages 4 and up. But with a PG-13 rating for the movie (which means that material may be inappropriate for children under 13 and parents are strongly cautioned), there's a bit of a disconnect. Unless they're collectors, it's unlikely that 13-year olds would be interested in the toys.

So this creates almost a double brand: An action figure brand that appeals to those who still are of the age to play with toys and a movie brand that appeals to more mature, action or adventure seeking audience. It can also extend the life of the brand by offering options for children up through adults.

Additionally, some may be sensitive to promoting a pro-military, pro-war message to children and younger audiences. However, since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there has been a more sympathetic and supportive stance toward those who protect the country through military service. So the pro-military story that the G.I. Joe brand tells is in alignment with the zeitgeist.

Transformers Transformed into Movie Stars

Like The LEGO® Movie, the Transformers movie franchise transformed Hasbro's Transformers™ robot toys into live action characters on the big screen. This series added real people interacting with giant versions of the shape and function shifting robots, as opposed to just the toy characters interacting with each other as in The LEGO® Movie.

This franchise had the added starring product placement of real life car models and brands (primarily GMC) that would transform into robots, particularly the Chevrolet Camaro which had a starring role as Transformers character, "Bumblebee."

Why It Works or Doesn't: Similar to the G.I. Joe movie series, the Transformers franchise is rated PG-13 for the intense action sequences and some adult themed content. However, many of the Transformers models are recommended for younger kids age 5 and up; there are also some versions of the toys designed for even younger children. So there is a bit of a disconnect here, too. Also, as with the G.I. Joe movies, the Transformers series can resurrect a generation's toy playing past in a new, adult way, giving extended life to the brand.

The product placement double-whammy of toys and real-life cars helped build multiple brands... although the cars-that-shift-into-robots may not be available from dealers (snickers!).

Did Battleship Sink?

The movie Battleship was "inspired" by a board and paper-and-pencil game whose origins can be traced back to the late 19th century. However, most people today would recognize Battleship as the pegged board or electronic game of naval combat strategy offered by game manufacturer, Milton Bradley. The branding in the movie, including the logo, can be clearly identified with the Milton Bradley® Battleship game.

But that's about where the association ends. Like the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises, Battleship is a live action movie with live characters.

Why It Works or Doesn't: The Battleship movie was, according to Wikipedia, "loosely inspired by the classic board game." Very loosely! There is little direct connection to the popular game. And the characters are battling aliens! That wasn't typically a featured opponent on the classic board game.

However, as with other brands featured in this article, the movie is rated PG-13 for intense action and more mature content, helping to extend the life of the game's brand with an aging audience.

Disclaimer: The examples and brands included here are for illustrative purposes only and do not suggest endorsement or affiliation. The author/publisher has used best efforts in preparation of this article. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and all parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice, strategies and recommendations presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional adviser where and when appropriate. The author/publisher shall not be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages. So by reading and using this information, you accept this risk.

© 2014 Heidi Thorne

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    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Were there Barbie movies? Are there Barbie movies? Really? How did I not know this? Not that I would go, but I find it amazing that I didn't know this. Sheez, where do I zone out occasionally?

      Great stuff here; we live in a world ruled by advertising; we are bombarded by it daily; to think otherwise is to live in a fantasy world.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      What a great set of examples, and your analysis was enjoyable to read. When my daughter was younger, I recall seeing some of the Barbie movies over and over. It was a singing Barbie on a horse with wings, and of course we had the toys that matched. It was a very "Barbie intense" time in our household! LOL.

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Billybuc, no you really haven't been living under a rock! Most of the Barbie movies were direct-to-DVD. And, yes, we do live in an advertising-centric world, for better or worse. Brands are using any and all ways to keep their stories alive. I'm just waiting for an M&Ms movie. :)

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      FlourishAnyway, I bet you had those Barbie tunes as regular ear worms running through your head. ;) Hope you didn't have a hard time explaining to your daughter that horses with wings don't really exist (darn it!). Thanks for adding to the conversation, as always! Have a great day!

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I didn't realize how out of the loop I have been. I haven't seen any of these movies! :) Great hub, Heidi!

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Epbooks/Elizabeth, let's just say you're too busy to go to the show instead of out of the loop! :) I can highly recommend The LEGO Movie which is still in theaters. Charming and clever! Have a great day!

    • Suzanne Day profile image

      Suzanne Day 3 years ago from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

      A well researched hub. I have seen the Barbie movies a lot and must say that the advertising seems to work on my little girl with the brand pushing. However, my kids don't respond to all movies, just a few particular ones, so since I had to buy them some toys anyway, it didn't matter if they were the ones they wanted from movies. Voted awesome and shared!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Suzanne Day! I'm sure you've got the tunes from the Barbie movies memorized. :) Interesting that your kids don't always respond to the movies. What I've seen in some of these movies is that the humor gets lost on kids because it's just too subtle and/or would appeal to older audiences. Thanks so much for reading and sharing! Have a great week!

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 3 years ago

      Toys are not just toys anymore for a long time. Nowadays a buyer doesn't want 'a doll', he/she wants a doll with functions (she can open eyes, cry, sit, divorce her husband, ...) and she also has a character (as shallow it is, it's still a character). This is good news for writers as myself (I helped to develop few characters for one of our brands and this turned out great), but in general still bad news for kids.

      With branded toys their imagination is very limited and I am not very happy with the situation. I don't see a problem, if a girls has a Barbie (or twenty Barbies), I see a problem if she doesn't have a regular doll, one which got a name and personality and hopefully some surprising additions by her owner.

      Well written hub with a lot of info and even more opened questions.

    • heidithorne profile image
      Author

      Heidi Thorne 3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Great insight, Tolovaj! Totally agree that we need to provide more toy opportunities for kids to build their imaginations. Simple boxes have sparked more playtime over the years than almost any other item on the planet. Same for paper and crayons. Thank you for adding this intelligent perspective to the conversation!

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